Supreme Court Makes Critical Ruling on Search and Seizure

In Torres vs. Madrid, the court made an important ruling on Search and Seizure that can be applied to criminal cases.

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The Supreme Court has made an important ruling related to search and seizure in Torres vs. Madrid.  While the underpinnings of this case include a civil suit between a woman and the police, it has important aspects that flow to Search and Seizure law.

Torres and the Underlying Conduct

Madrid and Williamson went to serve an arrest warrant on a woman “accused of white collar crimes, but also ‘suspected of having been involved in drug trafficking, murder, and other violent crimes.’”  While the underlying facts are disputed, the Supreme Court recounted the facts in the light most favorable to Torres.  

The officers observed Torres but determined that neither she nor her companion were the target of the warrant.  The officers approached the vehicle while Torres was getting into the driver’s seat.  The officers attempted to talk to Torres but she did not notice their presence until one of them tried to open the door of her car.  The court indicated that Torres was experiencing meth withdrawal at the time.

The officers were wearing tactical vests with police identification.  Torres indicated that she only saw their guns. Torres thought that they were hijackers that were trying to steal her car and she drove away to escape them.  Both officers fired shots at the vehicle.  In all, 13 shots were fired.  Torres was shot twice in the back and her left arm was temporarily paralyzed.  

She reported the attempted carjacking and drove to a nearby town.  She was later arrested and pled no contest to “aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer, assault on a peace officer, and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle.”

Torres’ 1983 Action

Torres later filed a 1983 action for “the deprivation of constitutional rights by persons acting under color of state law. She claimed that the officers applied excessive force, making the shooting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”  

The district court granted summary judgement in favor of the officers and the Tenth Circuit affirmed because “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim.” The court relied on Circuit precedent providing that “no seizure can occur unless there is physical touch or a show of authority,” and that “such physical touch (or force) must terminate the suspect’s movement” or otherwise give rise to physical control over the suspect.”

What is a Seizure?

The Supreme Court looked to their prior case law to determine this:

“we largely covered this ground in California v. Hodari D., 499 U. S. 621 (1991). There we interpreted the term “seizure” by consulting the common law of arrest, the “quintessential ‘seizure of the person’ under our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.” Id., at 624. As Justice Scalia ex- plained for himself and six other Members of the Court, the common law treated “the mere grasping or application of physical force with lawful authority” as an arrest, “whether or not it succeeded in subduing the arrestee.”  

The court went on to say that Hodari D. articulated that “the common law considered the application of force to the body of a person with intent to restrain to be an arrest, no matter whether the arrestee escaped.”  This rule’s basis went all the way back to English law.  

The majority noted that the dissent found other cases were a gun was used to apprehend a suspect.  But the majority found that “the focus of the Fourth Amendment is ‘the privacy and security of individuals,’ not the particular manner of ‘arbitrary invasion[ ] by governmental officials…’

As noted, our precedent protects ‘that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted’… a protection that extends to ‘[s]ubtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy’ adopted only later… There is nothing subtle about a bullet, but the Fourth Amendment preserves personal security with respect to methods of apprehension old and new.”

Exceptions to This Rule

The court went on to note that accidental force will not qualify and that “that the application of the common law rule does not transform every physical contact between a government employee and a member of the public into a Fourth Amendment seizure. A seizure requires the use of force with intent to restrain.”  Further, the court should use an objective test in order to determine if there was an intent to restrain:

“Moreover, the appropriate inquiry is whether the challenged conduct objectively manifests an intent to restrain, for we rarely probe the subjective motivations of police officers in the Fourth Amendment context… Here, for example, Torres claims to have perceived the officers’ actions as an attempted 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 whether Torres comprehended the governmental character of their actions.”

In rejecting the officer’s proposed test, intentional acquisition of control, the court also noted that the fourth amendment and its history included arrests in civil suits and that “questions regarding the legality of an arrest “typically arose in civil damages actions for trespass for false arrest.”  As a result, the court has relied on such decisions when interpreting the court amendment.  

Further the majority indicated that the dissent and the officers “erase[ ] the distinction between seizures by control and seizures by force.”  The court went on to note the differences between these two things:

Unlike a seizure by force, a seizure by acquisition of control involves either voluntary submission to a show of authority or the termination of freedom of movement. A prime example of the latter comes from Brower, where the police seized a driver when he crashed into their roadblock… Under the common law rules of arrest, actual control is a necessary element for this type of seizure… Such a seizure requires that “a per- son be stopped by the very instrumentality set in motion or put in place in order to achieve that result.” Brower, 489 U. S., at 599. But that requirement of control or submission never extended to seizures by force.

The majority ended by indicating that this did not end the litigation in this case, it only indicated that Torres was in fact seized by the police and that there were many more questions to be answered:

“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. Of course, a seizure is just the first step in the analysis. The Fourth Amendment does not forbid all or even most seizures—only unreasonable ones. All we decide today is that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement. We leave open on remand any questions regarding the reasonableness of the seizure, the damages caused by the seizure, and the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.”

No. 19–292 

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