When a Gunshot is a “Seizure” Under The Fourth Amendment
Facts of the Case
Petitioner Roxanne Torres was in a Toyota with the motor running in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson, who were watching the apartment complex in an effort to serve an arrest warrant, parked their unmarked patrol car near Torres’s vehicle.
Officers Madrid and Williamson attempted to open the locked door of the car in which Torres was sitting. The officers claim they shouted to Torres to open her car door. However, she was unable to hear or understand what the officers were saying. Instead, Torres thought she was the victim of an attempted carjacking, so she drove forward. Both officers testified that they believed Torres was going to hit them with her car.
Officers Madrid and Williamson both fired their weapons at Torres as she drove away. Thirteen 9 mm rounds hit Torres’ vehicle, and she was struck twice, in the back. Despite her bullet wounds, Torres did not stop the car, but continued to drive away. Torres continued to drive to Grants, New Mexico, where she went to a hospital for treatment.
Torres filed a civil rights complaint in federal court against Madrid and Williamson, alleging excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. She alleged that the officers’ intentional discharge of their weapons exceeded the degree of force that reasonable, prudent law enforcement officers would have applied under the circumstances, and sought relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the officers had not seized Torres at the time of the shooting. Accordingly, there could be no Fourth Amendment violation.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. It held that an officer’s application of physical force is not a seizure if the person upon whom the force is applied is able to evade apprehension. The decision conflicts with those of the Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits and the New Mexico Supreme Court. Those courts have found that a suspect is seized when either she submits to the authority of law enforcement (for example, by remaining at the scene or ceasing flight in response to a verbal command) or when a law enforcement official makes physical contact with the suspect with the intent to restrain her, whether or not that physical contact is immediately successful in immobilizing the person.
Issue Before the Court
In petitioning for certiorari, Torres’ argued that the Supreme Court must intervene to settle an integral question of Fourth Amendment law. “This split—over the meaning of ‘seizure,’ a basic Fourth Amendment term—is deep, well-entrenched, and shows no signs of resolving itself,” the petition argued. “Regardless of whether a suspect is shot, tased, or beaten, and regardless of whether a suspect moves to suppress evidence or instead tries to hold police accountable through an excessive force suit, courts must decide as a threshold matter whether and when a seizure has occurred. And because the conflict stems from competing understandings of this Court’s case law, only this Court can restore uniformity on a fundamental question regarding the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
The Supreme Court granted the petition and has agreed to consider the following question:
Whether an unsuccessful attempt to detain a suspect by use of physical force is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits and the New Mexico Supreme Court hold, or whether physical force must be successful in detaining a suspect to constitute a “seizure,” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals hold.
Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled but will likely take place this spring. A decision is expected by June.
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- Establishment ClauseFree Exercise Clause
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedoms of Press
- Freedom of Assembly, and Petitition
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
- Due Process
- Eminent Domain
- Rights of Criminal Defendants
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.