By: Tad Cleaves, Legal Counsel, Texas Municipal League
In a recent decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the application of physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, even if the person does not submit and is not subdued. Torres v. Madrid, 141 S. Ct. 989 (2021).
In the early morning hours of July 15, 2014, two plain-clothed officers with the New Mexico State Police approached Roxanne Torres’ vehicle because they suspected her of having been involved in white collar crimes, drug trafficking, murder, and other violent offenses. Torres did not notice the officers until one of them attempted to open the door to the vehicle. When she saw the officers’ guns, she thought they were carjackers, and she hit the gas. Neither officer was in the path of the vehicle, but together they fired 13 bullets at Torres, hitting her twice in the back. Torres successfully fled the scene and ended up at a hospital, where she was arrested the following day.
Torres sued the officers under Section 1983, alleging deprivation of her Fourth Amendment constitutional right to be secure from unreasonable seizure. She asserted that the officers applied excessive force, making the shooting an unreasonable seizure. The officers argued that since Torres successfully evaded confinement there could be no seizure.
The question presented to the Court was whether a Fourth Amendment “seizure” occurs when an officer shoots a person who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. A seizure requires the use of force with intent to restrain, and the use of force becomes a violation of the Fourth Amendment when the force is excessive. Use of force is excessive when the force used against the person is unreasonable when balanced against the needs of the government. The federal circuit courts were split regarding whether a seizure could take place if non-lethal force was used, yet the person eluded capture. The Court held that the officers seized Torres by shooting her with the intent to restrain her and remanded the case to the trial court for determination of the reasonableness of the force used, qualified immunity, and damages, if any.
The ruling in Torres clarifies that a use of force can be a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued, and even if the force is applied from a distance and not as a ‘laying of hands’ which was historically required.