On Thursday, March 25, 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that expands the ability of citizens to sue police officers for excessive use of force. It is a New Mexico case. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Roxanne Torres, a New Mexico woman who filed a civil rights lawsuit after being shot by officers she had mistaken for carjackers. The court held that police shooting at a fleeing vehicle “is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued” and therefor a violation of the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.
A link to the Supreme Court decision is here:
The 5-3 decision allows 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.
FACTS OF CASE EXAMINED
According to the lawsuit filed, Torres alleged she was sleeping in her SUV in the parking lot of an apartment complex when two police officers wearing dark clothing and tactical vests approached her. They had blocked her car with their unmarked cruiser. The two state police were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on another woman.
According to the civil complaint filed, when the officers tried to open her car door, she thought they were carjackers and started to drive away, at which time the 2 state police opened fired and shot 13 times at the fleeing vehicle striking Torrez in the back. The 2 state police officers contended Torrez drove at them and said they feared for their lives and shot in self-defense, yet the vehicle was driving away and Torrez was shot in the back.
Torres later crashed the car, stole another vehicle and managed to drive more than 80 miles to a hospital in Grants where she was treated. Torres was arrested the next day. She was convicted of 3 criminal offenses, including fleeing from a law enforcement officer.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
“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 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.”
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 majority court’s contrary conclusion by saying:
“That view is as mistaken as it is novel. … Our final destination confuses a battery for a seizure and an attempted seizure with its completion. … All this is miles from where the standard principles of interpretation lead and just as far from the Constitution’s original meaning.”
In 2016, Torres sued in a federal court in New Mexico. The Federal District Court judge dismissed the case ruling that there could be no excessive force claim because a “seizure” had not occurred. In 2019, the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion, prompting Torres to appeal to the United Sates Supreme Court.
The case will now return to lower courts, where the State Police 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.
Links to news coverage are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
This Supreme Court ruling is a remarkable decision in that Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion and was joined by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh and liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan. Conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett was not on the bench when the case was heard on October 14, 2020 and did not take part in consideration of the case.
This US Supreme Court case will no doubt send shock waves throughout all law enforcement agencies in the country. Many, but not all, law enforcement standard operating procedures prohibit shooting at fleeing suspects in cars. There is a very good reason for that. Stray bullets do not hit their targets and innocent bystanders can easily be hit and killed by mistake. In the Torrez case, only 2 out of 13 rounds fired hit Torrez and there is no mention as to what the 11 other bullets hit.
The decision is of particular interest and relevant to the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) because of the Department of Justice consent decree entered into after the DOJ found a “culture of agression” within APD and its use of excessive force and deadly force. One of the 271 mandated reforms is that APD Officers are strictly prohibited from shooting at fleeing vehicles.
With respect to the State of New Mexico, the 2021 legislature that just ended enacted the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. City, county and state law enforcement can now be sued for civil rights violations for shooting at a suspect fleeing in a vehicle and “qualified immunity” will not be able to be used as a defense as it is allowed in Federal Court cases for civil rights violations.