The United States Supreme Court recently determined that a “seizure” occurs under the Fourth Amendment when police officers shoot persons with the intent to apprehend them, even if the individuals get away. In Torres v. Madrid, New Mexico State Police officers arrived at an apartment complex to execute an arrest warrant. They noticed a woman (the “Petitioner”) who was not the target of the warrant in the parking lot.  When the officers approached the Petitioner’s vehicle, she got into the driver’s seat without noticing the officers’ presence until one of them tried opening the car door.  The Petitioner thought the police officers were carjackers and she drove off trying to escape. The two officers fired their service weapons at the car to stop the Petitioner, striking her twice in the back. Subsequently, the Petitioner sought damages from the two officers through a § 1983 civil rights lawsuit.

The question the United States Supreme Court addressed was whether the police officers “seized” the Petitioner when the force they used – striking her with gun shots – failed to stop her from escaping.  The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”  The Court determined that when the police officers shot at and hit the Petitioner they subjected her to force.  Yet, this use of force alone did not constitute a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.  According to the Court, “[a] seizure requires the use of force with intent to restrain.  Accidental force will not qualify.” This means that if the police officers had fired at and hit the Petitioner for some purpose other than to restrain her, they would not have seized her.  Carrying the analysis further, the Court considered whether the police officers’ conduct objectively demonstrated they had an intent to restrain and seize the Petitioner.  Objective intent to seize a person can be manifested by the amount of force being used.  As the Court observed, “[w]hile a mere touch can be enough for a seizure, the amount of force remains pertinent in assessing the objective intent to restrain.  A tap on the shoulder to get one’s attention will rarely exhibit such an intent.”

Having found that applying force to someone with an intent to restrain the person’s movement constitutes a seizure, the Court concluded that the two police officers seized the Petitioner by shooting her even though they failed to stop and subdue her.  The Court clearly indicated that its ruling was very narrow.  First, a seizure by force only lasts as long the application of the force.  With regard to the Petitioner, the police officers seized her only for the instant that their bullets struck her.  Practically, this means that damages for illegal seizures by force may be far less than a plaintiff might expect.  Second, the Court emphasized that all it decided was the police officers seized the Petitioner when they shot her.  The Court expressly refused to consider whether the seizure was reasonable and constitutional or not.        

Authored by:   

Allen Wall