Roxanne Torres didn’t know what was happening when men in dark tactical vests began chasing her car. She thought she was being carjacked. She fled in her Toyota FJ Cruiser, but the men shot her twice in the back.
She still managed to get away. She went to a hospital 75 miles from the scene but was airlifted back to Albuquerque. There, New Mexico State Police officers arrested her the next day.
Yes, the men in the dark tactical vests had been state police officers. What they did – chasing and shooting at Torres – is not in dispute. The question is, did they violate her constitutional rights?
Her lawyer argued that yes, the police certainly had violated her constitutional rights. Specifically, the lawyer said that the police actions violated Torres’ Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents.
The government didn’t argue that the officers had been reasonable or that they weren’t government agents. It argued that shooting Torres in the back didn’t constitute a “seizure” because it hadn’t succeeded in stopping her flight.
Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Ms. Torres, finding that the officers did effect a seizure when they shot her.
“Brief seizures are seizures all the same,” wrote Chief Justice John 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.”
The court did not actually rule that the state police had violated Torres’s rights. They merely ruled that the events constituted a seizure from a constitutional perspective.
“A seizure is just the first step in the analysis,” continued Roberts. “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.”
What does this mean for Torres?
As Chief Justice Roberts said, the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable seizures. Was shooting a suspect in the back reasonable? What if the suspect had no idea the men shooting at her were police? Shouldn’t the officers have made clear who they were?
This all matters because, if Ms. Torres’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the police cannot use any evidence garnered as a result of that violation against her. Furthermore, she could be eligible for compensation in a civil rights lawsuit.