Saturday, March 27, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled this week that a shooting by police officers is a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment, even if the victim of the shooting escapes. The ruling is consistent with the holding in California v. Hodari D., a 1991 opinion authored by Justice Scalia. But the Court said that it didn't need to determine whether Hodari D. controlled, because the Court independently came to the same conclusion here.
The ruling doesn't end the case, though; it just allows it to move forward. The lower courts will still have to determine whether the seizure was "reasonable," whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, and what damages the plaintiff is entitled to.
The case, Torres v. Madrid, arose when officers shot at Roxanne Torres as she fled in her vehicle. (Torres sped away from the officers because she thought they were trying to carjack her.) The officers hit Torres, but she continued driving for 75 miles. She was airlifted to a hospital, where police arrested her the next day.
Torres sued the officers for unreasonably "seizing" her in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The officers argued that their shots couldn't have amounted to a seizure, because she got away.
The Court agreed with Torres. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court that "[a]t the adoption of the Fourth Amendment, a 'seizure' was the 'act of taking by warrant' or 'of laying hold on suddenly'--for example, when an 'officer seizes a thief,'" but that it didn't "necessarily result in actual control or detention." The Court noted that at English common law "a corporal touch [was] sufficient to constitute an arrest, even though the defendant do[es] not submit." It said that "[e]arly American courts adopted this mere-touch rule . . . just as they embraced other common law principles of searches and seizures." (The Court went on to say that a touch must "objectively manifest an intent to restrain," that it's not measured from the perspective of the seized person, and that it a seizure "lasts only as long as the application of force.") It held that the officers' bullets constituted just such a "touch," and therefore constituted a Fourth Amendment seizure.
Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. He argued that "[u]ntil today, a Fourth Amendment 'seizure' has required taking possession of someone or something," and that this didn't occur here.
Justice Barrett did not participate.