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Supreme Court decides that unarmed man shot in the back by a police officer is not entitled to trial

Kelly Macias

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Ricardo Salazar-Limon was pulled over in Houston for drunk driving. As the officer tried to put him in handcuffs, Salazar-Limon tried to walk back to his vehicle. This is where he and the officer have two different stories. Salazar-Limon says he then reached for his waist. The officer says he thought Salazar-Limon was reaching for a weapon. While they may have different stories of what transpired during the arrest, one fact is not in dispute: the officer proceeded to shoot Salazar-Limon in the back, causing him “crippling injuries.” He was unarmed at the time.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. As a result, a lower court decision now stands, which means that Salazar-Limon will not get a day in court at all. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg both dissented from the court’s decision. 

It’s not at all clear which one of these men is telling the truth (though Sotomayor rather archly notes in a footnote that “some commentators have observed the increasing frequency of incidents in which unarmed men allegedly reach for empty waistbands when facing armed officers”). But, under a fairly basic legal concept taught to every first-year law student, this lack of clarity should entitle Salazar-Limon to a full trial to determine what happened.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas (no surprises there) defended the lower courts’ decision, claiming that there is no genuine dispute as to the facts—even though Salazar-Limon and the officer clearly have two different accounts of what happened. This isn’t hard: both the officer and Salazar-Limon have a genuine dispute as to the facts. 

"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 in dissent. "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."

Sotomayor is absolutely right. The court is all too often willing to protect police officers when lower courts get it wrong. But where is the justice for Ricardo Salazar-Limon? Where is the justice for everyday citizens? Police officers will continue to be able to shoot unarmed citizens at their discretion—and they now have full judicial approval.