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Can Police Shoot at a Fleeing Vehicle?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Police officers often face dangerous circumstances, not the least of which is when a suspect is fleeing in a car. A high-speed pursuit can endanger officers as well as the general public, so there is a safety interest in avoiding them or ending them as soon as possible.

Does this interest include being able to shoot at fleeing vehicles? It's a legally murky area, and may be more confusing after two seemingly conflicting decisions this week.

Jeremy Mardis

Jeremy Mardis was six years old and buckled into a car seat in his father's car when he was shot and killed by two Louisiana deputy marshals. Early reports said Derrick Stafford and Norris Greenhouse Jr. were serving a warrant on Mardis's father, Chris Few, when he tried to drive away. However, the AP is reporting that Louisiana's head of state police, Col. Mike Edmonson, said there was no evidence a warrant was issued and there was no gun found at the scene.

Last Friday, investigators arrested Stafford and Greenhouse and charged them with second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. While details of the shooting remain scarce, Edmonson told a news conference Friday that the body camera footage was "the most disturbing thing I've seen."

Israel Leija, Jr.

Texas police officers were also trying to serve a warrant on Israel Leija, Jr. in 2010 when he fled in his vehicle. During the pursuit, Leija called local police dispatch twice, saying he had a gun and threatening to shoot at officers if they didn't abandon the chase. Despite other officers deploying tire spikes ahead of Leija, Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Chadrin Mullenix fired six shots into Leija's car, hitting him four times and killing him. Mullenix was allegedly trying to disable the car, but none of his shots hit the car's radiator, hood, or engine block and it's unclear whether he had a gun or not.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity for killing Leija. In general, police are prohibited from using deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect unless the person is armed and officers have "probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." In this case, Israel's threats and the belief that he had a gun were sufficient for the Court.

Police officers often have to make snap judgments when pursuing suspects, and whether to open fire is one of them. And courts generally require a very good reason for officers shooting at fleeing suspects, especially if they're in a vehicle.

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