Well, this is a weird one.
In 2014, Roxanne Torres drove into an apartment complex with a passenger. Four officers approached Torres, who was sitting in her car. Torres said she fled when she saw people with guns approaching, thinking she was going to be carjacked. Officers Madrid and Williamson fired 13 shots between them, hitting her twice in the back as she drove away in her car.
Torres continued driving but was arrested the next day after being treated in a hospital for her wounds. She was convicted of three criminal offenses, including fleeing from a law enforcement officer.
She then sued the officers for using excessive force. A federal court judge in New Mexico in 2016 dismissed the case, saying there could be no excessive force claim because a “seizure” had not occurred. The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion in 2019, prompting Torres to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The 5-3 decision allowed Torres to pursue her lawsuit accusing New Mexico State Police officers Richard Williamson and Janice Madrid of violating the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on illegal searches and seizures even though she had not been immediately detained, or seized, in the incident.
The court determined that in order to sue for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment, it is not necessary for a plaintiff to have been physically seized by law enforcement.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote
“We hold that the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.”
In a dissenting opinion, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch said a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment has always been defined as “taking possession of someone or something,” and he criticized the court’s contrary conclusion.
“That view is as mistaken as it is novel.”
The case will now return to lower courts, where the officers could seek to have the lawsuit dismissed on other grounds including the legal doctrine called qualified immunity that protects police and other types of government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances.
Interestingly, the police wore identifying clothing and their badges, along with tactical vests. Torres claimed she couldn’t see anything because it was dark.
There is a bigger question. If the force used didn’t do the job, as in, didn’t detain her, then how could it be excessive? Just a thought.