The Supreme Court sided Thursday with a New Mexico woman who was shot by police as she attempted to flee in her vehicle.
The 5-3 ruling could make it harder for law enforcement to justify use of force when attempting to stop a suspect.
At issue is when police can be held liable for claims of an unconstitutional “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.
“The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. “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 incident occurred in 2014 when state police shot Roxanne Torres at an Albuquerque apartment complex. She mistakenly believed the two officers were carjackers and tried to escape the scene. Officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson claimed she was driving toward them in a dangerous manner.
The officers were there to arrest another woman and claimed they wanted to check if Torres was their suspect.
Torres was wounded twice in the back and sued for excessive force.
Lower courts had ruled for the police, saying officers had “qualified immunity” from a suit, concluding Torres’ continued flight after being shot negated an excessive force claim. Lower courts also said that, because there was no “physical touch or a show of authority” by police on Torres at the apartment complex, no actionable “seizure” had occurred.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution says, “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 said the court’s ruling was limited in nature, only on the question of whether the incident represented a “seizure.”
“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.”
But Justice Neil Gorsuch warned such suits could hamper police for their split-second decisions on the imminent threat of violence.
“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,” said Gorsuch. “Neither the Constitution nor common sense can sustain it.”
He was backed by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case, since she was not yet on the bench when it was argued in October.
The case is Torres v. Madrid (19-292).