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US Supreme Court Justices Spar Over Traffic Stop
Four justices spar over whether the US Supreme Court has a bias in favor of police officers.

Houston police car
Justices for the highest court in the nation decided Monday not to hear the case of a motorist who was shot in the back after being pulled over by a police officer. The Supreme Court only selects a handful of appeals each term, but the October 29, 2010 traffic stop that left Ricardo Salazar-Limon paralyzed spurred an unusual written back-and-forth between two sides of the bench.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested the refusal to review the lower court's decision was based on a bias toward believing police officers over motorists in all cases.

"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," the dissenting justices wrote. "It also continues a disturbing trend regarding the use of this court's resources."

The dispute centered on the actions of Houston, Texas Police Officer Chris Thompson, who had been patrolling the Southwest Freeway when he allegedly saw Salazar-Limon's pickup truck weaving. Upon seeing the flashing lights of the squad car behind him, Salazar-Limon pulled over, and eventually Officer Thompson ordered Salazar-Limon out of the truck so that he could conduct the standard drunk driving field tests. Eventually, Salazar-Limon resisted being put in handcuffs before turning his back to the officer while walking toward his truck.

Officer Thompson ordered the man to stop. One side says the cop fired immediately, the other says Salazar-Limon reached for his waistband and turned toward the policeman in a threatening manner before the crippling shot was fired. Salazar-Limon sued Officer Thompson over the excessive force used, but a federal judge threw out the suit, citing the officer's qualified immunity.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg say that the lower courts were wrong because a jury, not a judge, should have weighed the evidence to see which account of that night's events was more credible.

"It is possible that Salazar-Limon did something that Thompson reasonably found threatening; it is also possible that Thompson shot an unarmed man in the back without justification," the dissenting justices wrote. "What is clear is that our legal system does not entrust the resolution of this dispute to a judge faced with competing affidavits. The even handed administration of justice doesnot permit such a shortcut."

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas rejected that analysis, calling the case "marginal" in terms of the facts involved and not the kind of case that sets broad precedent.

"This court applies uniform standards in determining whether to grant review in cases involving allegations that a law enforcement officer engaged in unconstitutional conduct," Justice Alito wrote, defending the majority. "Regardless of whether the petitioner is an officer or an alleged victim of police misconduct, we rarely grant review where the thrust of the claim is that a lower court simply erred in applying a settled rule of law to the facts of a particular case."

Justices Alito and Thomas noted that Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg never filed a written dissent in the cases they claimed showed a high court bias in favor of police officers.

"This is undeniably a tragic case, but as the dissent notes, we have no way of determining what actually happened in Houston on the night when Salazar-Limon was shot," Justice Alito noted.

A copy of the concurring and dissenting opinions is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Salazar-Limon v. Houston (US Supreme Court, 4/24/2017)

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