Thursday, April 22, 2021

Shooting at fleeing suspect constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures applies when the police fire their guns at a fleeing vehicle. 

The case is Torres v. Madrid, issued on March 25. The case began when the police tried to execute an arrest warrant against Torres, who took off at a high rate of speed because she thought he police were carjackers. The police shot her car 13 times, striking her twice. She sued the police for excessive force.

This may seem a simple issue, but it's not. Chief Justice Roberts votes with the liberal majority, making this a 5-3 case (Justice Barrett not participating). Roberts notes that prior Supreme Court cases hold that a "seizure" arises when the police use force with intent to restrain someone. Under the common-law in place when the Fourth Amendment was drafted, a seizure does not have to result in the actual control or detention of the suspect. Old cases also hold that "the slightest touch was an arrest in point of law." And, of course, arrests are "seizures." The majority digs into old cases from England in summarizing this area of the law.

The Court holds there is no reason to draw "an artificial line between grasping with a hand and other means of applying physical force to effect an arrest." The majority rejects the dissenting argument that arrests are limited to cases when the police lay their hands on the suspect. While there were firearms at the time the Constitution was drafted, law enforcement did not carry them until the late 1800's. So there are no cases holding that shooting at a fleeing suspect constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure. This case is the first from the Supreme Court, which emphasizes that while not every touch from a police officer constitutes a seizure, it will be a seizure when the police do so with intent to restrain. 

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