By Terry Baxter, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled in a case involving Fourth Amendment seizures (Torres vs. Madrid). United States Supreme Court clarified the meaning of a seizure and addressed the argument proposed that a seizure required complete control of a suspect but noted there is a seizure by control and a seizure by force which could have consequences for law enforcement involved in use of force events.

The Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. This case concerns the seizure of a person which can take the form of physical force or a show of authority that in some way restrains the liberty of a person. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which decides cases out of Nebraska, has long interpreted Fourth Amendment seizures to include unsuccessful “attempts” by law enforcement to take physical control over a suspect. But until the recent ruling in the Torres case, some other Circuit Courts had held that there was no Fourth Amendment seizure unless law enforcement had gained actual control over the person being seized.

Torres vs. Madrid

On July 15, 2014, New Mexico State Police Officers wearing tactical vests with police markings, was at an apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant on a female when officers observed two females standing by a vehicle, one later identified as Torres. As the officers approached, one female left on foot and Torres got into a vehicle, alleging she was fearing for her safety. Officers testified that Torres appeared to experiencing methamphetamine withdrawal. Officers would also testify that neither Torres nor her companion was the target of the warrant.

Officers tried to contact Torres while she was in her vehicle. Torres would claim she did not recognize the officers as law enforcement and thought she was being carjacked when one of them tried to open her car door. Torres indicated she only saw their guns and so she took off driving away from the area. Torres would claim neither officer was in the path of her car as she sped away, but officers would claim Torres drove her vehicle toward one of them.

Officers fired thirteen rounds toward the fleeing vehicle, two rounds struck Torres. Torres drove away from the area, stopping in a parking lot. She asked a bystander to report an attempted carjacking. Torres then stole a vehicle, driving it 75 miles to a hospital. Later Torres would be arrested fleeing from a law enforcement officer, assault on a peace officer and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle. Torres pled no contest to the charges and filed suit against Officer Madrid and Officer Williams under 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging her constitutional rights were violated when officers used excessive force.

The District Court granted summary judgement to the officers, concluding stopping of movement was not satisfied and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed that since Torres continued her flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment claim as no seizure had occurred and the force applied did not terminate the suspect’s movement. But the United States Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision vacated the Court of Appeals decision and concluded officers seized Torres even though she fled and was not captured until later.

The Supreme Court held that “the officers” shooting constituted physical force to her body and objectively manifested an intent to restrain her from driving away, so therefore concludes she was seized the instant the bullets struck her.

The Court indicated in their opinion a seizure does not depend on the subjective perceptions of a seized person, in this case Torres claimed to have perceived the officer’s actions as a carjacking, but the conduct of the officers, ordering Torres to stop and then shooting to restrain her movement, satisfies the objective test for a seizure, regardless of where Torres comprehended the governmental character of their actions. The officers shooting applied physical force to her body and objectively manifested an intent to restrain her from driving away. Courts then conclude the officers seized Torres for the instant that the bullets struck her.

Justice Gorsuch, with whom Justice Thomas and Justice Alito join, dissenting:
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 is 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.

But the majority holding of the case and the takeaway rule of law in the land going forward is this: “We hold that the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.

Now, the big question will be in future Fourth Amendment seizure cases whether on an officer’s act of physical force, which might take on many different forms, such as a tap on the shoulder or spraying mace into a crowd, could be included as an “intent to restrain”, concerns I am sure will be before the courts for consideration.

To read the decision access: