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Justice Sotomayor calls out her Supreme Court colleagues for going too easy on the police

Sotomayor targeted a specific legal technicality that may bias the legal system in favor of police officers.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Olivier Douliery/Pool via Getty Images

Justice Sonia Sotomayor says the Supreme Court is letting police off the hook too easily.

In a surprising dissent backed only by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sotomayor wrote in detail about one of the biases in the legal system that may let cops get away with excessive use of force — by slanting the system in favor of the police officer.

“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.”

Essentially, Sotomayor is arguing that the Supreme Court goes easy on police officers through a specific legal technicality.

Under the law, courts can give what’s called a “summary judgment” — and stop a case in its tracks with a hastened ruling — if they believe that the facts of the case aren’t in dispute. If the facts aren’t in dispute, the courts figure, there’s no reason for a big, time-consuming trial.

In comes the case of Houston police officer Chris Thompson and the man he shot, Ricardo Salazar-Limon. Lower courts, backed by the Supreme Court on Monday, used summary judgment to dismiss Salazar-Limon’s lawsuit against Thompson and other city officials.

In this case, Thompson shot Salazar-Limon, who was unarmed, and paralyzed him from the waist down. The key dispute in the case is how, exactly, the shooting occurred.

The confrontation began with a traffic stop, reportedly when Thompson saw Salazar-Limon, who had been drinking, weave from lane to lane. After stopping Salazar-Limon and running his Mexican driver’s license (finding no criminal history), Thompson asked Salazar-Limon to get out of the vehicle. Then Thompson tried to place Salazar-Limon in handcuffs.

At this point, there was some sort of struggle. Salazar-Limon claims he was simply walking away when Thompson opened fire, shooting within seconds or immediately after yelling a command to stop. Thompson claims that Salazar-Limon turned around and raised his hands toward his waistband as if he was reaching for a weapon, forcing the officer to shoot.

This would seem like the kind of dispute that could be settled in a full trial. But there’s a technicality: Salazar-Limon never explicitly disputed in court or testimony that he had reached for his waistband. Without an explicit statement, lower courts interpreted the key facts to be undisputed; after all, if Salazar-Limon did reach for his waistband, then it was reasonable for Thompson to believe Salazar-Limon posed a threat at the time, even though he ultimately did not have a weapon.

Sotomayor wrote that this is a wrongheaded way to look at the case. She pointed out that there are crucial facts in dispute — most notably, just when and how quickly Thompson fired. And she further argued that it’s obviously implied by Salazar-Limon — through his testimony and the mere fact he filed a lawsuit — that he never reached for his waistband, even if he never explicitly said, “I did not reach for my waistband.”

“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.

“This is not a difficult case,” she added. “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.”

Yet the courts, now backed by a majority of the Supreme Court, seemed to be quick in granting summary judgment in this case. To Sotomayor, this seems to be evidence that the system is tilted in favor of police officers: If a small technicality — like someone not explicitly disputing one fact — is available, the legal system will side with the police. That, Sotomayor argued, is a problem.

“We take one step back today,” she wrote. “I respectfully dissent.”

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