High court: More police excessive force suits can go forward

People view the Supreme Court building from behind security fencing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sunday, March 21, 2021, after portions of an outer perimeter of fencing were removed overnight to allow public access. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Patrick Semansky, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is siding with a New Mexico woman who was shot by police as she drove away from them, in a case that will allow more excessive force lawsuits against police to go forward.

The justices ruled 5-3 on Thursday that Roxanne Torres' suit could continue because she had been “seized” by police when she was shot, even though she fled. The five justices in the majority included the court’s three liberals and two of its conservative members.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in an 18-page opinion for himself, conservative Brett Kavanaugh and liberals Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The decision does not end the case. Roberts wrote that the “Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures — only unreasonable ones.” Lower courts will have to weigh in on the “reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure, and the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity,” which could also end the case in the officers’ favor.

When the case was argued in October, the Trump administration had urged the justices to side with Torres and send the case back to lower courts.

Torres was shot in 2014 when four members of the New Mexico State Police arrived at her Albuquerque apartment with an arrest warrant for someone else. Torres was in her car with the engine running when officers attempted to speak with her. But Torres, who was experiencing a methamphetamine withdrawal, did not notice them until she said one tried to open her car door. Thinking the officers were carjackers, Torres hit the gas. Two of the officers fired their weapons 13 times as she drove off. She was hit twice in the back.

Torres pleaded no contest to aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer and assault on a peace officer. She also pleaded no contest to unlawfully taking a different motor vehicle, which she took after she fled and used to drive to a hospital 75 miles away.

Torres sued officers. She claimed they used excessive force, making the shooting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. A lower court ruled for officers and dismissed the case; an appeals court agreed. The Supreme Court's decision now lets the suit move forward.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

"The majority holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large. On the majority’s account, a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ takes place whenever an officer 'merely touches' a suspect. 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," Gorsuch wrote in a 26-page dissent.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett had not yet joined the court when the case was heard on Oct. 14 and did not participate in the decision.

The case is Torres v. Madrid, 19-292.