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Supreme Court expands meaning of ‘seizure’ under Fourth Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/TNS)

The Supreme Court on Thursday expanded the Constitution’s protection against an “unreasonable seizure,” ruling that a person who is shot by a police officer may sue, even if he or she was able to drive away without actually being detained or held.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for a 5-3 majority, said the key issue is whether the police used “physical force” in an attempt to arrest or restrain someone.

“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,” he said in Torres v. Madrid.

The court’s ruling gives more legal protection to fleeing suspects and others who are injured trying to escape officers. In the past, judges have often held that claims for excessive use of force and an “unreasonable seizure” are limited to situations where officers had physical control over a suspect.

Thursday’s ruling revives a lawsuit brought by a New Mexico woman who said she was wrongly shot when officers arrived at her apartment complex planning to arrest another person. When the woman, Roxanne Torres, saw the officers, she believed they were armed criminals trying to carjack her and tried to drive away. She was shot several times.

Her suit alleging an unreasonable seizure was thrown out by lower courts on the grounds that she was not “seized” because she got away.

Roberts noted she would still have to prove the police action was unreasonable.

“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,” he wrote.

In dissent were Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Gorsuch called the court’s opinion “novel” and “mistaken.” The majority “holds that a criminal suspect can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large. … In two centuries filled with litigation over the Fourth Amendment’s meaning, this court has never before adopted the majority’s definition of a ‘seizure.’ Neither the Constitution nor common sense can sustain it.”

In recent years, the court has been sharply criticized for shielding police from lawsuits over the use of excessive force, often by giving officers a “qualified immunity” when the law was not clear. Thursday’s decision does not directly back away from the doctrine of qualified immunity, but it expands the law allowing for claims against officers.

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the progressive group Constitutional Accountability Center, called the ruling “a significant victory that signals the potential both for accountability under the Fourth Amendment, as well as for cross-ideological majorities of the court to follow the Constitution’s text and history.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh cast a key vote to form the majority, which included liberal Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett took no part in the case, which was argued in October before she took her seat.

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