Salazar-Limon didn’t get more than a few steps before he heard Thompson shout for him to stop. He didn’t, and instead took another step or two. Then, as he later recounted, “I hear: Boom. I began to feel hot in my back, wet. And so I turn around, and I see him. And then I fall.” Salazar-Limon collapsed near the front of his truck. He tried to reach for the bumper to pull himself to his feet, but he could no longer move his legs. “I was kind of like suffocating,” Salazar-Limon recalled during a deposition. “I was, like, leaving. I was dying.” In a photograph taken later that night, a blood smear, illuminated by the headlights of his truck, stains the gray asphalt beside the barrier.
* * *
Thompson remembers that night differently. When Salazar-Limon rolled down his window, Thompson smelled alcohol. (Salazar-Limon later said he’d had between three and five beers in the previous four hours.) After Thompson ran Salazar-Limon’s information, he had the man step out of his truck and walk with him to the gap between the truck and the patrol car. Thompson told Salazar-Limon in a calm voice that he needed to detain him while he conducted a sobriety test. He asked Salazar-Limon to turn around and put his hands behind his back.
He complied. But as Thompson reached for an arm to handcuff him, Salazar-Limon spun around and pushed Thompson toward the freeway. The two wound up in what the officer described as “a wrestler’s lock,” with Salazar-Limon shoving Thompson—the larger of the two by about six inches and 45 pounds—in the direction of the Jersey barrier at the edge of the elevated freeway. (Thompson acknowledged in his deposition that he emerged without a scrape or a bruise.)
In time, Salazar-Limon broke free and began to walk away from Thompson, between the barrier and his truck. The patrolman, alarmed by the scuffle, drew his gun and pointed it at Salazar-Limon. As Thompson kept him in his sights, his eye was drawn not to the driver’s blue slacks or his dress shoes—a doctor a few hours later would label him “well groomed”—but to the untucked button-down shirt that hung over his waistband. Thompson’s thoughts raced: “This guy tried to push me in traffic. He tried to push me over the bridge. I need my gun. I haven’t searched him. He has a long shirt. He’s pushing away for a reason.” He called twice after Salazar-Limon, who was shouting in Spanish, to stop and show his hands.
When Salazar-Limon neared the cab of the truck, he turned over his left shoulder, made eye contact with Thompson, and appeared to reach a hand in front of him toward his waistband. “The brain said, ‘This guy is reaching for a weapon,’” Thompson later recalled. “Pull the trigger.” Then he did.
* * *
In 2011, Salazar-Limon sued Thompson, alleging the officer had violated his constitutional rights. To many—including Sotomayor and Ginsburg—Salazar-Limon’s is a classic example of a case for a jury to decide. As even Justice Samuel Alito conceded in an opinion supporting the Court’s decision, only the two men know what happened between them that night. The passengers in Salazar-Limon’s truck provided no clarity: According to Sean Palavan, an attorney for Salazar-Limon, they said they didn’t see what happened just before Thompson fired.