In a ruling that will seriously impact how police officers can decide to use force when stopping suspects, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a woman could sue officers who shot her as she tried to flee in her car.
According to Reuters, the case widens the rights of individuals to sue law enforcement officers for using excessive force, with justices ruling that shooting a suspect could be legally construed as an unconstitutional “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.
The case involved a New Mexico woman, Roxanne Torres. In 2014, four officers approached Torres, who was sitting in a car at an Albuquerque apartment complex. According to Fox News, police were there to look for another woman and said they wanted to see if Torres was the suspect.
Torres fled, explaining later that she believed the officers were carjackers. She was also the subject of a different arrest warrant, however, as noted in Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent in the case.
Two of the New Mexico State Police officers, Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson, said she was driving toward them in a threatening manner as she fled. The two officers fired 13 shots at Torres, hitting her twice.
She was arrested the next day at a hospital, where she was being treated for her wounds, and eventually convicted of fleeing from a law enforcement officer and other offenses.
In 2016, when she tried to press an excessive force lawsuit against the officers, a New Mexico federal judge dismissed the case because excessive force requires a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment — something that hadn’t happened, since she was shot.
The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
The New Mexico court also ruled the officers had qualified immunity — a judicially established doctrine that government officials are only liable for lawsuits if they violate “clearly established” constitutional precedent or law.
In 2019, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court, prompting Torres to appeal to the Supreme Court.
On Thursday, the high court ruled 5-3 that Torres had a right to pursue her case, saying a shooting qualifies as a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.
“The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable ‘seizures’ to safeguard ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons.’ Under our cases, an officer seizes a person when he uses force to apprehend her,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.
“The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. The answer is yes: The application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person.”
The justices noted, however, they weren’t deciding whether Torres’ lawsuit was valid.
“All we decide today is that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement,” Roberts wrote.
“We leave open on remand any questions regarding the reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure, and the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.”
Roberts was joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh from the court’s conservative wing and the court’s three liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court after the case was heard and did not vote.
Writing for the dissenters, Gorsuch argued the ruling relied on a “novel” interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and greatly expanded what law enforcement officers could be held liable for.
“The majority holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large. On the majority’s account, a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ takes place whenever an officer ‘merely touches’ a suspect,” he wrote.
“It’s a seizure even if the suspect refuses to stop, evades capture, and rides off into the sunset never to be seen again. That view is as mistaken as it is novel.
“Until today, a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ has required taking possession of someone or something. To reach its contrary judgment, the majority must conflate a seizure with its attempt and confuse an arrest with a battery. In the process, too, the majority must disregard the Constitution’s original and ordinary meaning, dispense with our conventional interpretive rules, and bypass the main currents of the common law.”
For Torres, it’s questionable how far she’ll end up getting in this case. As Gorsuch noted in his dissent, she was the subject of a different arrest warrant, admitted she was “tripping out bad” on amphetamines at the time and stole another car and drove 75 miles to receive treatment. She pleaded no contest to assault on a police officer, aggravated fleeing from an officer and the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
The question is how this decision will affect police officers’ ability to use force.
Gorsuch also noted there were remedies under New Mexico state law to sue for other forms of damages and said, “The only reason this case comes before us under [federal law] and the Fourth Amendment rather than before a New Mexico court under state tort law seems to be that Ms. Torres (or her lawyers) missed the State’s two-year statutory filing deadline.”
However, any expansion of the right to sue police officers under a dubious interpretation of the Fourth Amendment adds yet another unwelcome variable in how law enforcement is trained to deal with split-second decisions that could result in grave harm, either to officers or to someone else.
The narrowness of Thursday’s decision remains to be seen, particularly given that constitutional grievances can, as in Torres’ case, be filed after the statute of limitations has run out on state remedies.
Particularly given a different, more hostile climate toward police than existed even two years ago, that could open up an unsettling new avenue for lawsuits — all based on a “novel” interpretation of the Fourth Amendment that could potentially open Pandora’s box.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.