The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that shooting at a fleeing suspect may violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on seizures.
“The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable ‘seizures’ to safeguard ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons,'” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the 47-page opinion on the 5-3 decision. “The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. The answer is yes.”
The decision stems from the case of Roxanne Torres, who fled New Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williams, who were attempting to arrest her in 2014 for white collar crimes.
Torres said she thought the police were carjackers, and she fled in her car to escape. Two of the officers fired 13 times to stop Torres, striking her twice in the back and temporarily paralyzing her left arm. Torres steered with her right arm and drove to a hospital 75 miles away before being airlifted back to Albuquerque, where she received care. She was arrested the next day.
Torres sought damages from both of the officers, claiming excessive force and violation of the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizure. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the officers on the basis that “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim.”
The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals decision but did not rule on the seizure’s reasonableness, the damages caused, or the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.
“The officers’ shooting applied physical force to her body and objectively manifested an intent to restrain her from driving away,” Roberts wrote in the opinion. “We therefore conclude that officers seized Torres for the instant that the bullets struck her.”
Roberts was jointed in his opinion by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and one appointee of former President Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh. Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, also appointed by Trump, did not take part in the opinion because she was not seated yet when the case was argued last fall.
The dissent argued seizure was limited under common law to placing hands on a suspect, but the majority opinion said seizure “can be as readily accomplished by a bullet as by the end of a finger.”
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