A woman who was shot by police but got away won her U.S. Supreme Court case over what it means to be seized under the Fourth Amendment.
In a 5-3 ruling on Thursday authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said “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.”
Roberts was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Brett Kavanaugh in the dispute that pit groups seeking greater police accountability against law enforcement supporters who argued an adverse ruling would have detrimental effects for officers and the public.
Answering the question “whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting,” Roberts said: “The answer is yes.”
Kelsi Corkran, who argued the case in October on behalf of Roxanne Torres, said the ruling “confirms what I think most people already assumed to be true: The Constitution’s protection against police brutality applies regardless of whether the excessive force takes the victim down or whether she instead is able to escape.”
“An alternative world—where the police are free to shoot someone for no reason at all so long as the person doesn’t immediately fall to the ground—is frankly quite scary to think about, and incompatible with the right to personal liberty that forms the foundation of our Constitution,” said Corkran, who this year became senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. She was previously head of Orrick’s Supreme Court practice and argued the case while still with the firm.
A contrary ruling would have left victims of police violence without a legal remedy and would be particularly devastating for Black communities, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., which supported Torres at the high court.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling comes at a moment when America is grappling with police violence against Black communities,” said LDF Assistant Counsel Kevin E. Jason. The ruling “ensures that those who are subject to police violence will have access to the legal protections and remedies afforded to them by the Constitution,” Jason said.
Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Gorsuch cast the majority opinion “as mistaken as it is novel.” As he put it, the court ruled that it’s a seizure “even if the suspect refuses to stop, evades capture, and rides off into the sunset never to be seen again.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t participate in the case heard before she was confirmed.
In the early morning of July 15, 2014, New Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson shot Torres at an apartment complex in Albuquerque while she was in a vehicle. The officers were there to arrest another woman.
The officers said they wanted to see if Torres was the one they were looking for, while Torres said she thought they were carjackers. Torres said she drove away from the officers; they said she drove at them.
The officers shot at her vehicle 13 times, hitting her twice in the back.
Torres tried to sue the officers in 2016. Lower courts blocked the suit and said the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, reasoning they hadn’t technically seized Torres under the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches and seizures, because she got away.
The lawyer for the officers, Mark Standridge of Jarmie & Rogers in Las Cruces, N.M., did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.
Lisa Soronen of the State and Local Legal Center, who filed a brief supporting the officers, said it could harm public safety.
“A lot of fleeing suspects are dangerous,” Soronen said. “So the biggest practical concern is that officers now have to think, ‘Am I really sure this is going to be a reasonable use of force if I go after someone and they get away? Are they going to sue me?’”
The Justice Department supported Torres.
Case Not Over
While Thursday’s opinion cleared a hurdle for Torres’ suit, there’s more litigation ahead.
Roberts noted that the seizure question “is just the first step in the analysis.”
“The Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures—only unreasonable ones,” Roberts said.
“All we decide today is that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement,” he said in the opinion vacating the Tenth Circuit’s ruling for the officers. “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.”
The case is Torres v. Madrid, U.S., No. 19-292, vacated and remanded 3/25/21.