Court Battles

Supreme Court wades into legal gray zone around police shootings

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The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over whether a misidentified suspect who was shot by police but evaded arrest was ever “seized” under the Constitution.

The case stems from a 2014 incident in which two New Mexico officers shot Roxanne Torres in a parking lot after they mistook her for the target of an organized crime bust.

Torres was high on methamphetamines at the time and believed the officers to be car-jackers. She drove toward the officers, prompting them to fire at her 13 times, striking her twice. She then stole a car and fled 75 miles before checking into a hospital. She was arrested the next day.

Torres sued the officers in federal court for their use of excessive force against her. The district court judge treated the lawsuit as an alleged violation of Torres’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

The judge bypassed a trial and ruled against Torres because the shooting did not amount to a “seizure.” The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, prompting Torres’s appeal to the Supreme Court.

Torres’s attorney told the justices Wednesday that the lower courts had misinterpreted the meaning of the Fourth Amendment as intended by the Founders and failed to abide by prior Supreme Court rulings.

“The court unanimously recognized that when a government officer inflicts physical force on a person with the intention to restrain them, that person is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, regardless of whether that restraint is successful,” said attorney Kelsi Corkran.

The Justice Department, however, argued that Torres had been “momentarily seized” when she was shot, and urged the justices to return the case to the lower courts for a more thorough analysis.

Mark Standridge, who argued on behalf of the officers, said a seizure requires a “stoppage of movement,” which did not occur when the officers shot Torres.

“That is an easily administrable rule for police officers working in the field,” he told the justices. “And it’s also easily understood by the common person with common sense and common understanding in 200 years of dictionary definitions, and on the ordinary notion of seizure.”

A decision in the case, Torres v. Madrid, is expected before July.

Tags Roxanne Torres Searches and seizures Supreme Court United States Supreme Court cases

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