Facts of the Case
In 2014, Roxanne Torres was involved in an incident with police officers in which she was operating a vehicle under the influence of methamphetamine and in the process of trying to get away, endangered the two officers pursuing her. In the process, one of the officers shot and injured her. Torres pleaded no contest to three crimes: (1) aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer, (2) assault on a police officer, and (3) unlawfully taking a motor vehicle.
In October 2016, she filed a civil-rights complaint in federal court against the two officers, alleging claims including excessive force and conspiracy to engage in excessive force. Construing Torres’s complaint as asserting the excessive-force claims under the Fourth Amendment, the court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. In the court’s view, the officers had not seized Torres at the time of the shooting, and without a seizure, there could be no Fourth Amendment violation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed.
Must physical force used to detain a suspect be successful to constitute a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment?
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 authored the majority opinion.
Under the Court’s precedents, common law arrests are considered seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and the application of force to the body of a person with intent to restrain constitutes an arrest even if the arrestee escapes. The use of a device, here, a gun, to effect the arrest, makes no difference in the outcome; it is still a seizure. There is no reason to draw an “artificial line” between grasping an arrestee with a hand and using some other means of applying physical force to effect an arrest. The key consideration is whether the conduct objectively manifests the intent to restrain; subjective perceptions are irrelevant. Additionally, the requirement of intent to restrain lasts only as long as the application of force. In this case, the officers’ conduct clearly manifested intent to restrain Torres and was thus a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Justice Neil Gorsuch authored a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined, arguing that “neither the Constitution nor common sense” support the majority’s definition of a seizure.
Further analysis of the oral argument available at Oral Argument 2.0: https://argument2.oyez.org/2020/torres-v-madrid-2/
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