The Supreme Court on Thursday revived a case of a woman in New Mexico who argued she should be able to bring a claim of excessive force against police officers who shot her, even if she was not immediately apprehended at the scene.
In a 5-3 majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court wiped away a lower court opinion that went against the woman, Roxanne Torres, and asked the lower court to take another look at whether her claim can go forward under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment that bars unreasonable search and seizure.
Roberts wrote that the “application of physical force with the intent to restrain” is a seizure, even if the person “does not submit and is not subdued.”
He said that the holding is the “first step” in the analysis to see if the Fourth Amendment was violated and sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the police officer’s actions in the case were reasonable under the Constitution.
He said the lower court should consider the reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure and the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.
Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Gorsuch pointed to long-standing precedent, saying that the lawsuit should only be able to go forward if the government had obtained physical control over the person.
“The majority’s need to resort to such a schizophrenic reading of the word ‘seizure’ should be a signal that something has gone seriously wrong,” Gorsuch wrote. “Today, for the first time, the majority seeks to equate seizures and criminal arrests with mere touches, attempted seizures and batteries,” he said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the case because she was not on the bench when it was argued.
The case comes as the country is still grappling with claims of excessive force by law enforcement officers.
In July 2014, Torres was sitting in a Toyota Cruiser in New Mexico when she feared she was about to become a victim of a carjacking. In fact, the two individuals approaching her car were law enforcement officers. Torres – who was recovering from methamphetamine withdrawal, according to court records – put the car in drive and stepped on the gas upon seeing a firearm. She was subsequently hit by two bullets in the back but continued to drive, over a curb, through some landscaping and onto a street.
She collided with another vehicle, got out of the car and went on to steal another vehicle, driving 75 miles until she admitted herself to a hospital.
She gave a false name, presumably because she had an outstanding arrest warrant. Torres ultimately pled no contest to three violations, but filed a civil rights claim in federal court, asserting a claim of excessive force against the officers. She said the officers had violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures when the officers shot her in the back.
But a lower court said that Torres could not bring the claim because she had actually evaded capture and not been seized by the police. That court said that an arrest would have qualified as a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, but since she hadn’t actually been immediately stopped she couldn’t bring the lawsuit.
“Without a seizure,” the court said, Torres’ excessive force claims “fail as a matter of law.”
At issue before the justices was whether using lethal force to restrain someone even if the suspect evades capture is enough to qualifies as a “seizure” and allow the lawsuit to go forward.
A lawyer for the officers, Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson, who were wearing tactical vests and badges at the time, said they fired several shots because they feared for their life as she did not stop or slow down. But at no time did they have custody or control over Torres.
“A seizure under the Fourth Amendment occurs when a police officer acquires physical possession, custody, or control over a suspect,” Mark D. Standridge, the officers’ lawyer, told the justices. He added: “from the time of the founding to the present, and as a matter of common sense, the acquisition of physical control over a person has been necessary to effectuate a seizure. “
A lawyer for Torres told the justices that the court “has long recognized that, at its core, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable government intrusion with personal security, including invasive physical touch.”
Torres still faces a high hurdle in defeating a potential claim of qualified immunity from the officers. Last term, the justices faced several petitions asking them to look at that doctrine again, but the petitions were turned away, possibly to await the outcome of Torres’ case.