Supreme Court: Woman who tried to run over troopers can sue them for excessive force despite escaping from them

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WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a drug-fueled woman, who tried to run two troopers over with her vehicle, can pursue claims of excessive force against the officers who shot her in self-defense.

The ruling paves the way for making it easier for people to sue law enforcement officers for excessive force, even if they have not been physically seized by police.

Last October, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the 5-3 opinion of the Court, in which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Thomas and Alito joined.

Justice Barrett took no part in the consideration or decision of this case because she was not on the bench when it was argued last October, according to Washington Examiner.

In a 5-3 majority opinion written by Roberts, the high court wiped away a lower court opinion that went against the woman, Roxanne Torres, and asked the lower court to take another look at whether her claim can go forward under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment that bars unreasonable search and seizure, according to CNN.

Roberts wrote that the “application of physical force with the intent to restrain” is a seizure, even if the person “does not submit and is not subdued,” CNN reported.

Roberts also wrote that the holding is the “first step” in the analysis to see if the Fourth Amendment was violated and sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the troopers’ actions in the case were reasonable under the Constitution.

CNN reported that Justice Gorsuch wrote in the dissenting opinion that the lawsuit should only be able to go forward if the government had obtained physical control over the person:

“The majority’s need to resort to such a schizophrenic reading of the word ‘seizure’ should be a signal that something has gone seriously wrong. Today, for the first time, the majority seeks to equate seizures and criminal arrests with mere touches, attempted seizures and batteries.”

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The case was based on a July 15, 2014 incident in which an Albuquerque woman was shot by two New Mexico State Police officers who said they opened fired because she was driving directly toward them at high speed.

Torres was the driver of the car and disputed the troopers’ account and claimed she drove off because she thought she was being carjacked by Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson, even though they wore police badges.

According to court records, Torres was going through “methamphetamine withdrawal” at the time, CNN reported.

The following summary of events is based on CNN’s report and Courthouse News Service.

The troopers were reportedly visiting an apartment complex in Albuquerque to arrest another woman, who was suspected of having been involved in drug trafficking, murder and other crimes.

Madrid and Williamson spotted two people standing outside. One of them ran into an apartment, while Torres jumped into a parked Toyota FJ Cruiser and started the engine.

Torres said that the officers, who were wearing dark tactical vests and badges, tried to open her car door, so she claimed they were criminals trying to carjack her. She “freaked out,” sped off and was shot twice while trying to exit the parking lot, according to court records.

The officers said Torres’ vehicle was driving at them at a high rate of speed and acceleration.

According to an Albuquerque Journal report, Trooper Madrid told detectives:

“I began to fire at the driver to stop that vehicle. I didn’t believe that I was going home. I was waiting for the impact.”

Washington Examiner reported that 13 shots were fired.

Torres was hit by two rounds, but still managed to jump a curb and barrel through some landscaping to get out onto an open street, according to CNN.

Torres sped off, ultimately crashing into another vehicle before she stole a different car and drove 75 miles to a hospital.

Torres reportedly had an outstanding warrant out for her own arrest and had provided hospital personnel with a fake name, but she was ultimately identified and placed under arrest, CNN reported.

Torres pleaded no contest to fleeing from police, assault on an officer and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle. The officers were not charged in the incident.

Torres then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in October of 2016, accusing Madrid and Williamson of excessive force, claiming the officers violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures when the officers shot her in the back.

A federal judge granted summary judgment to Madrid and Williamson on the basis of qualified immunity, and the 10th Circuit affirmed it in May of 2019.

The Denver-based appeals court found that Torres’ Fourth Amendment claims were invalid because she was not officially arrested or seized during the incident, having evaded police for a full day after being shot.

Torres appealed, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether an unsuccessful attempt to detain someone constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

In December of 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed to take up the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had previously filed an amicus brief in support of Torres in October of 2019, arguing the definition of seizure applies to far more than formal arrests, writing in part:

“The Tenth Circuit’s rule is…at odds with basic Fourth Amendment principles, in ways that create a dangerous gap in accountability. It will leave a wide range of physical force deployed by police officers—including blunt force, chokeholds, Tasers, and lethal force—wholly unregulated by the Fourth Amendment.”

The ACLU conceded that police officers can use physical force to stop a fleeing suspect, but said there are still limits to the force they can use. ACLU’s attorneys wrote:

“That we grant them this power, however, does not mean they should have a free pass to use unreasonable physical force—and to inflict serious harm with that force—on anyone who is fleeing, merely because that force failed to stop the person.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling comes after months of national debate on the issue of police conduct and rules of engagement, which have been focused on since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last May.

Floyd’s death sparked violent protests across the country last year and raised questions about law enforcement’s use of force rules and treatment of suspects.

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