In a 5-3 decision in Thomas v. Madrid, handed down March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that victims of police shootings qualify as having experienced a “seizure” subject to the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches or seizures, even if they were able to evade arrest.
Written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the decision strengthens the ability of such shooting victims to pursue legal remedies against the police. Three dissenting Justices – Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito – criticized the ruling as illogical and contrary to earlier decisions.
The case was brought by Roxanne Thomas, an Albuquerque woman who in 2014 was shot by New Mexico police while they were trying to arrest her while she was standing by her vehicle. Although she was hit by two of the 13 rounds they fired, she managed to escape and drive 75 miles to a hospital. Thomas claims that when the police appeared, she was “bumming out bad” from methamphetamine use and mistook the police officer for carjackers.
Over two years later, Thomas brought a section 1983 lawsuit against the police, claiming they had deprived her of her constitutional rights while acting under color of local law. The trial court granted summary judgment to the police, and an appellate court agreed, in large part based on a local case law that an arrest requires the suspect to surrender or be taken under control. Since Thomas managed to evade the arrest, she did not suffer a seizure, according to this line of thought.
But, according to the Chief Justice’s opinion, Torres was seized “the instant that the bullets struck her.” According to Chief Justice Roberts, the “application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person.”
Lower courts had rejected Thomas’ claims, ruling for the police officers, saying that because she was not immediately stopped or arrested, it was not a “seizure.” But in reversing those decisions, Roberts explained “the officers seized Torres for the instant that the bullets struck her.” Further, “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.”
The majority decision left for lower courts to determine such issues as possible damages for Thomas or a “qualified immunity” defense for the police. But the dissenting Justices branded the majority decision as illogical, for finding a criminal suspect “can be simultaneously seized and roaming at large,” and departing from the traditional view that a Fourth Amendment “seizure” required taking control of someone or something. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that, to do that, the majority “must disregard the Constitution’s original and ordinary meaning, dispense with conventional interpretive rules, and bypass the main currents of the common law.”
Since the Court’s hearing of the case predated her arrival, Justice Amy Barrett Comey did not take part in the decision.
About the Author
Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. He also represents students nationwide when they are charged with violations of their school’s code of conduct.