Supreme Court Denies Unarmed Houston Man's Appeal in Police Shooting

Supreme Court Denies Unarmed Houston Man's Appeal in Police Shooting
Tim Evanson/Flickr
Tim Evanson/Flickr
Did Ricardo Salazar-Limon reach for his waistband, or did he not reach for his waistband?

That's the central fact in the lawsuit Salazar-Limon filed against the City of Houston after a Houston police officer shot him in the back during a DWI stop. He was unarmed. Salazar-Limon, now partially paralyzed because of the gunshot wound, appealed the case after a federal court sided with the Houston police officer, awarding the city a summary judgment. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand, rejecting his plea for a final appeal.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor decried the majority opinion as a mistake, saying that her colleagues erred in letting a summary judgment stand that "accepts the word of one party over the word of another," giving the police officer the benefit of the doubt without allowing a jury to weigh both sides of the story. Courts can't issue summary judgments, Sotomayor noted, when there are genuine disputes over the facts — especially one used to justify the shooting of an unarmed man.

"The question whether the officer used excessive force in shooting Salazar-Limon thus turns in large part on which man is telling the truth," Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurred. "Our legal system entrusts this decision to a jury sitting as finder of fact, not a judge reviewing a paper record."

On the night of October 29, 2010, the police officer, Chris Thompson, attempted to handcuff Salazar-Limon while they were standing outside his patrol car. But Salazar-Limon resisted, broke free and walked back toward his truck. Here's where the stories differ: Thompson claimed Salazar-Limon, who ignored Thompson's order to stop walking, reached for his waistband and began to turn around, leading Thompson to believe he had a gun. Salazar-Limon, on the other hand, claimed that Thompson fired "immediately" or "within seconds" after telling him to stop, pulling the trigger before he even had a chance to turn his body.

But because he did not specifically say "I did not reach for my waistband" during his deposition, the lower federal courts held that he didn't offer evidence that Thompson's account wasn't true — despite Salazar-Limon's different description of what happened. Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the concurring opinion, said this was sufficient enough for the federal court to issue summary judgment and Fifth Circuit to uphold it.

In her dissent, Sotomayor calls attention to how easily her own court can agree to grant police officers who shoot people qualified immunity in cases in which lower courts improperly ruled in favor of the victim; yet when it's the victim appealing the officer's authority to shoot him, "we rarely intervene." Sotomayor called attention to growing number of police narratives in which unarmed men "allegedly reach for empty waistbands when facing armed officers." Here's what she said in closing:

"Only Thompson and Salazar-Limon know what happened on that overpass on October 29, 2010. 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. What is clear is that our legal system does not entrust the resolution of this dispute to a judge faced with competing affidavits. The evenhanded administration of justice does not permit such a shortcut."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn