The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a new ruling favoring victims’ rights in encounters with police in which Chief Justice John Roberts (and Justice Brett Kavanaugh) joined the court’s three liberals and created a majority that went against the apparent hopes of some Republicans.
The case, Torres v. Madrid, involved an incident in which a woman named Roxanne Torres was sitting in her car in a parking lot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when two armed police officers, who she didn’t know to be members of law enforcement at the time, approached her vehicle. Torres thought that the armed men were trying to steal her car, and she drove away — and as she drove, the officers fired over a dozen shots at her, and she was struck twice. After Torres fled the officers (who, again, she didn’t know to be officers at the time), she stole a vehicle that she found idling and sought medical attention.
Torres filed a lawsuit claiming that the officers used “excessive force” against her, but the officers’ side claimed in response that, although the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” the cops hadn’t actually conducted a “seizure,” because they did not take Torres into custody at the time of the original incident. (She was eventually arrested.) Chief Justice Roberts wrote on behalf of the majority that the justices “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.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s third appointee to the court, did not participate in the case, because the court originally heard the proceedings before she was confirmed, but Trump’s other appointee, Neil Gorsuch, sided with the minority in this case. Roberts argued that “all the authorities, from the earliest time to the present, establish that a corporal touch is sufficient to constitute an arrest, even though the defendant do not submit,” while Gorsuch, who wrote on behalf of the minority, claimed otherwise, insisting that authorities must take “possession of someone or something” for an incident to constitute a “seizure” according to the law.
At present, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion means that Torres’s lawsuit can proceed, although the eventual outcome is uncertain.