Supreme Court Opens Door for Excessive Force Suits against Police
The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that Torres could proceed with her excessive force lawsuit against New Mexico state police. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented, citing long-standing precedent that lawsuits should only proceed if the officers had physical control over the person. Justice Barrett took no part in the case because she was not on the Court when the case was heard.
Roxanne Torres was in a Toyota Cruiser in New Mexico in July 2014 when police officers pulled her over. However, Torres alleges that she feared that the officers were carjackers because she was recovering from methamphetamine withdrawal. Torres drove her car away upon seeing the officers’ firearms. The officers fired their weapons as Torres drove off and she was hit in the back by two bullets. Torres continued to drive though and eventually collided with another vehicle.
Torres stole another vehicle and drove for another 75 miles before admitting herself to a hospital under a fake name. She was eventually arrested anyway and was charged with three violations. Torres went on the offensive and filed a civil rights claim in federal court. She asserted that the officers had violated her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizures when the officers shot her in the back. The lower courts ruled against Torres on the grounds that she had actually evaded capture and thus hadn’t been legally seized at the time. Torres is now free to pursue her claim against New Mexico state officers, thanks to the Supreme Court.
Can the Police Seize Someone by Shooting at Them?
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable government search and seizures. Prior cases have established that such seizures could include invasive physical touching. However, Torres represents a significant expansion of the term “seizure.” Under Torres, a police seizure is no longer limited to an arrest or confiscation of property. Police officers can violate the Fourth Amendment merely by discharging their weapons at someone.
This expansion of the Fourth Amendment is potentially desirable in today’s political climate. The Court’s ruling is timely as Minneapolis begins a criminal trial against the officer who killed George Floyd. If police officers know they can be sued simply for shooting someone, they might think twice before actually opening fire. These two cases, comely barely within a month of one another, could reshape the landscape of police accountability.
The larger dispute is whether an attempted seizure should be enough for a lawsuit. Opponents might argue that this ruling unnecessarily ties the hands of police officers. Police officers are trained to defend themselves if they believe that a suspect may harm the officer. There may be instances where hesitation because of potential lawsuits may cost an officer his life or the lives of others.
However, Torres indicates that police self-defense or defense of others can only go so far. It is difficult to claim that Torres posed any threat to the officers as she was driving away from them, not toward them. Officers clearly intended to stop her flight, even if they failed in this instance. Officers intended to seize her and were prepared to use deadly force to restrain her. The officers were arguably attempting to seize her without a warrant and without threat to their own persons. There is clearly some basis for a Fourth Amendment violation and for a jury trial as to whether Torres rights were violated.
Last summer’s events demonstrated that America is a long way from resolving the racial tensions and police brutality issues that have plagued for the last several years. The Supreme Court’s new ruling may begin the healing process that the country desperately needs.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Filing a Lawsuit?
If you believe that a police officer has violated your rights, you have a right to seek money damages for your injuries. It is important to speak to a criminal defense lawyer immediately to help you find your way through the process of making a claim.