Justice Sonia Sotomayor believes her Supreme Court colleagues are letting police officers off the hook, and she’s not OK with that.
In a dissent, backed only by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor explained how the high court helped skew the legal system in favor of the police, causing cops to get away with excessive use of force.
“Our failure to correct the error made by the courts below leaves in place a judgment that accepts the word of one party over the word of another,” Sotomayor wrote. “It also continues a disturbing trend regarding the use of this Court’s resources. We have not hesitated to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity in cases involving the use of force.”
Sotomayor is talking specifically about a legal technicality called a “summary judgment,” when the court enters a judgment for one party and against another party without a full trial.
This is what was being decided on through Salazar-Limon v. Houston.
Police officer Chris Thompson shot and paralyzed unarmed Ricardo Salazar-Limon during a traffic stop in Houston, Texas. The Latino man, who had been drinking, was pulled over after weaving from lane to lane. Salazar-Limon, who had no criminal history, was asked to get out of his car. When the officer attempted to handcuff him, there was some sort of struggle. Salazar-Limon says he was walking away. Thompson said the man reached for his waistband, giving him reason to shoot him.
This is a case that would see a full trial. However, because Salazar-Limon never explicitly disputed in court or testimony that he had reached for his waistband, lower courts, now backed by the Supreme Court, interpreted the key facts to be undisputed – never mind that he never had a weapon to reach for.
For Sotomayor, this is a flawed way to perceive the case. For her, there are major facts in dispute, including when and how quickly Thompson fired his gun. Even more, the Puerto Rican justice notes that Salazar-Limon's testimony and decision to file a lawsuit implies that he never reached for his waistband, even if the words "I did not reach for my waistband" never came out of his mouth.
“The most natural inference to be drawn from Salazar-Limon’s testimony was that he neither turned nor reached for his waistband before he was shot — especially as no gun was ever recovered,” Sotomayor wrote.
She continued: “This is not a difficult case. When a police officer claims that the victim of the use of force took some act that would have justified that force, and the victim claims he did not, summary judgment is improper. The Fifth Circuit’s decision should be reversed.”
Still, the high court granted summary judgment in the case, which, for Sotomayor, is evidence that the legal system is rigged to favor law enforcement.
“We take one step back today,” she wrote. “I respectfully dissent.”