On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling regarding whether police officers are immune from Fourth Amendment lawsuits because they attempted – but failed – to detain someone by using excessive force.
Roxanne Torres, 35, an Albuquerque, New Mexico resident, was shot in the back by two New Mexico State Police officers seven years ago. While she was fleeing from them at the time, it was because she thought they were criminals attempting to steal her car.
In 2016, Torres sued the officers in a New Mexican federal court for use of excessive force on the grounds of an alleged violation of her Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. A judge dismissed her claim, stating an excessive force claim could not go forward as no seizure was involved. Torres appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the ruling.
The case then went before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is asked to consider roughly 10,000 cases annually. It agrees to hear only a small fraction.
In the 5-3 decision, the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the liberal court members in finding that Torres’ shooting was tantamount to a police seizure, even though she was not arrested immediately. Roberts wrote that the bullets striking Torres were, in effect, a seizure.
“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,” according to Roberts. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the decision.
The ruling means Torres’ federal lawsuit against the officers may proceed.
Mistook Police for Carjackers
According to her lawsuit, Torres was sleeping in her SUV in an apartment complex’s parking lot on the morning of July 15, 2014 when two police officers in “dark clothing and tactical vests” came near her. They blocked her SUV with their unmarked police vehicle.
New Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson had gone to the apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant on a third party.
Torres, who was high on methamphetamine at the time, thought the police officers were carjackers. She said she fled the scene when seeing armed people approach her SUV and trying to open her car door.
Officers Madrid and Williamson fired at her a total of 13 times. Torres was shot twice in the back, but she kept driving. Because the bullets in her back paralyzed her left arm temporarily, she had to steer with her right hand.
The following day, while at the hospital for treatment, she was arrested. She was later convicted of three offenses, including fleeing from law enforcement.
No Crime, No Threat
Torres’ attorney noted that his client was not a suspect for any crime and not a threat to the police. She had a right to be in her SUV in the parking lot, making her seizure unreasonable. He noted Torres was an unarmed civilian. Firing on her was the use of excessive force by the officers.
Another of her attorneys said that had the Supreme Court’s decision gone the other way, it would mean police were free to shoot someone for no reason whatsoever, as long as the person can escape and does not immediately fall to the ground.
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If you are injured or a family member is wrongfully killed or suffers an injury during an arrest, while you are in custody, or when you are in state or federal jail or prison – you can sue. Contact our lawyers online or by telephone 866.836.4684 to learn more.