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Supreme Court revives police shooting victim's suit against officers

The Hill
The Hill
 2021-03-25
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The Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for a police shooting victim to pursue an excessive force lawsuit against two New Mexico police officers who shot her twice as she fled by car.

In a 5-3 decision, the court issued a narrow ruling in favor of Roxanne Torres, finding that her shooting amounted to a police "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment, even though Torres had managed to evade immediate arrest.

The ruling returns the case to a lower court, where Torres must clear a number of additional legal hurdles to ultimately prevail in her claim that the officers used excessive force during the 2014 incident in the parking lot of an Albuquerque apartment complex.

Two of the court's conservative justices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh , joined the court’s three liberals to form a majority, with the three most conservative justices writing in dissent. Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case.

Roberts, writing for the majority, emphasized that the decision was narrow in scope, with the court finding only that “the officers seized Torres for the instant that the bullets struck her.”

“We hold that the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain," he wrote, "is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued."

On the morning of July 15, 2014, New Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson went to an Albuquerque apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant on a third party. When they arrived, they found Torres in a parked vehicle and attempted to make contact with her.

Torres was high on methamphetamines at the time and believed the officers to be car-jackers. She drove toward them, prompting them to fire at her 13 times, striking her twice, while she continued to flee. Torres was not arrested until the following day.

She later sued the officers for excessive force, arising from their alleged violation of her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure.

A federal judge in New Mexico dismissed Torres’s suit in 2018, finding that she had not been subject to a police seizure. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the ruling.

The justices’ decision on Thursday reverses the lower court and clears the way for Torres to pursue her claims against Madrid and Williamson. To win, she will have to prove that her seizure was unreasonable and that the officers should not be entitled to immunity from her lawsuit.

Writing in dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch said the majority had erred in finding that Torres was seized.

“The majority holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large,” wrote Gorsuch, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas . “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.”

—Updated at 12:06 p.m.

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