WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court made it harder Monday to sue police for using deadly force against fleeing suspects, ruling that officers are immune from lawsuits unless it is “beyond debate” that a shooting was unjustified and clearly unreasonable.

By an 8-1 vote, the justices tossed out an excessive force suit against a Texas police officer who ignored his supervisor’s warning and took a high-powered rifle to a highway overpass to shoot at an approaching car. The officer said he hoped to stop the car but instead shot and killed the driver.

The ruling bolsters previous decisions that give police the benefit of the doubt when they encounter a potentially dangerous situation. The court noted in an unsigned 12-page opinion that it has “never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment.”

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor faulted the majority for “sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing.”

In cases where officers are not prosecuted, families sometimes sue in federal court and allege a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Monday’s decision could affect many such cases, including a pending appeal from Los Angeles involving the police shooting of a suspected gang member.

The case decided Monday involved a man in Tulia, Texas, who fled from a drive-in restaurant when police tried to arrest him. He was believed to be drunk and carrying a gun. He led officers on a nighttime chase that reached 110 mph.

Texas state Trooper Chadrin Mullenix heard about the chase over his radio and drove to a spot where officers were putting a strip of spikes across the highway to puncture the tires of the fleeing car. He had been criticized for not reacting decisively in the past, and he decided on his own to shoot at the fleeing car.

His commander advised him to “stand by” and “see if the spikes work first.” But Mullenix fired six shots and killed the driver, Israel Leija Jr.

His family sued, and a federal judge ruled the case could go to a jury to decide whether Mullenix’s actions were “reckless,” or reasonable under the circumstances.


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