US Supreme Court Analyzes Fourth Amendment “Seizure” by Gunshot

A recent decision from the United States Supreme Court addresses the timely issue of the use of deadly force by law enforcement within the context of the Fourth Amendment. In Torres v. Madrid, the Court held that applying physical force to a person with the intent of restraining that individual is a seizure even when, as occurred in this case, the force is in the form of gunfire that fails to subdue the person.

The holding drew a sharply worded rebuke from three dissenting justices who characterized it as "neither supported by the Constitution nor common sense." The dissent went on to say, "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." A look at the facts of the case may offer a better understanding of just what the justices on both sides were addressing.

Escape in a fast car and a helicopter ride back

It was almost dawn when two police officers wearing tactical vests with markings identifying them as law enforcement went to an apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant. They saw and approached two women standing by a parked car.

As the officers approach them, one of the women headed toward the apartments. The other woman (Roxanne Torres), who the police realized was not the subject of their warrant, stood next to her car before getting into the driver's seat as the officers got closer.

The woman would later say she did not notice the officers until one of them attempted to open her car door, and when that occurred, she thought the two people standing near her car with guns were carjackers. Consequently, she hit the accelerator pedal.

Although neither of the officers was in the car’s direct path, both of them fired a total of 13 times at the vehicle. Two of the bullets struck the woman, but she managed to continue driving.

Ms. Torres did not get far. She crashed into a car in a parking lot, got out of it, and lay down on the pavement to, as she later reported, wait for the carjackers. She asked a bystander to call the police, but instead of waiting for them to arrive stole a car and drove 75 miles to a hospital.

The doctors decided they could not provide the level of care the woman needed, so they arranged for her to be airlifted to another hospital that could treat her. Unfortunately, the new hospital was back in the city she had just left. Police arrested her the following day.

Shooting results in a civil rights lawsuit

The woman filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against both police officers claiming that shooting her amounted to the use of excessive force. The federal district court awarded summary judgment to the officers, which means it decided a trial was unnecessary. It ruled that the failure of the gunfire to stop the woman meant there had not actually been a Fourth Amendment seizure of her person. Absent a Fourth Amendment seizure, the district court held it was unnecessary to address the issue of whether the force used was reasonable and necessary.

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit refused to overturn the lower court decision. The appeals court referenced the fact that firing at the woman failed to stop her from fleeing, so the lack of police control over her meant there had not been a seizure within the scope of the Fourth Amendment.

The critical issue has to do with "the right of the people to be secure in their persons…against unreasonable searches and seizures…." When police engage in a seizure, the person has the right to challenge the methods, including the use of excessive force, through motions to suppress the use of statements made by the person detained or, as in this case, a civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation.

When does the seizure of a person actually occur?

The focus of the parties’ arguments and, ultimately, the holding of the Supreme Court was the meaning of the Fourth Amendment’s language, which states:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Courts have offered interpretations of what constitutes the seizing of a person and concluded that it requires the person to be subdued by police and within their control. Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, offered that it is a natural extension of this premise to accept that police use of a gun or another device is the same as the application of force by the use of their hands.

The fact that Ms. Torres did not allow two bullet wounds to stop her from evading capture did not alter the conclusion that the officers engaged in a Fourth Amendment seizure. Justice Roberts concluded that, more important than the means used to apply physical force to a person in order to seize or arrest them, is whether an objective analysis of the conduct leads one to conclude its purpose was to restrain the person. Intent to restrain a person need last only for as long as it takes to apply the force to be a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Where does this case leave us?

Attorneys arguing on behalf of the police officers sought to limit the meaning of a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. If successful, the result would be that the woman, in this case, would not have recourse through a federal civil rights claim. It would also mean that the constitutional rights afforded a person under arrest, including the right to counsel and the right against self-incrimination, would not attach.

Justice Roberts cautioned against the dissent’s position that taking possession has always been an element of the “seizure” analysis by noting a long line of cases dating back to the common law supporting the constructive detention of a person without physical control over them constituting an arrest. This ruling from the High Court now gives people the right to have their claims of excessive force (and other conduct engaged in by police) reviewed by trial judges within the context of the Fourth Amendment.

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