The Supreme Court on March 25 sided with a New Mexico woman who was shot by police when she tried to flee from them in her vehicle.
In a 5–3 ruling (pdf), the high court wrote that the woman was “seized” under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, although the shooting didn’t result in police immediately detaining her.
The case arose from a 2014 incident in which Roxanne Torres was approached by officers who were attempting to serve a warrant to a different person, and when they tried to speak to Torres, she drove away.
The officers fired 13 shots at the woman, saying they feared for their safety as she quickly drove off. Two of the shots hit Torres, although she didn’t stop and kept driving for 75 miles.
Torres later sued for excessive force.
“Under our cases, an officer seizes a person when he uses force to apprehend her,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “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 Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate, as the case was argued before she joined the high court last year.
In the case, lower courts had ruled that officers had “qualified immunity” and ruled against Torres, saying that because there was no “physical touch or a show of authority” by police, there was no “seizure” that took place. They reasoned that police hadn’t technically seized Torres under the Fourth Amendment, rendering it moot before she appealed.
Roberts, meanwhile, said that the ruling was limited and was only on whether the incident was a “seizure.”
“The Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures—only unreasonable ones,” wrote Roberts, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush. “All we decide today is that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement. 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.”
Gorsuch, in his dissent, said that the majority’s ruling could cause problems for police to make decisions while on the job.
“On the majority’s account, a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ takes place whenever an officer ‘merely touches’ a suspect. 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,” Gorsuch wrote. “Neither the Constitution nor common sense can sustain it.”
The case is Torres v. Madrid, No. 19-292.