Access to Justice

Torres v. Madrid II

In Torres v. Madrid, the Tenth Circuit is considering, among other things, whether police officers who shot an individual in the back as she drove away from them are entitled to qualified immunity.

Case Summary

In 2014, Roxanne Torres sat in her parked car when two New Mexico police officers attempted to open her car doors. Torres began to drive away, at which point the officers shot at her multiple times, striking her twice in the back. Although the police did not apprehend Torres immediately, they arrested her later at a hospital where she was receiving medical attention for the serious wounds she suffered in the shooting. Torres later sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations. Torres alleged that the officers used excessive force against her in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable “seizures” of persons and property.

After being denied relief on the ground that she was not “seized” by the shooting, Torres asked the Supreme Court to hear her case. In March 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor, holding that “the officers seized Torres by shooting her with the intent to restrain her movement,” regardless of whether they succeeded in stopping her. The Court also sent her case back to the lower courts to resolve outstanding issues that its opinion did not address.

Despite winning in the Supreme Court, Torres was denied relief again in the district court, which held  the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity and that Torres’s excessive force claims were barred by another limit on Section 1983’s reach—the rule of Heck v. Humphrey. Torres subsequently appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

On May 9, 2022, CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Torres.

Our brief makes three main points.

First, we explain that qualified immunity is at odds with the text and history of Section 1983 and so courts should be especially vigilant in safeguarding the limits that the Supreme Court has placed on the application of this doctrine. Enacted in a landmark civil rights law of the Reconstruction era, Section 1983 was meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a federal damages remedy. While Congress intended Section 1983 to incorporate certain well-known immunities that were recognized by the common law at the time, today’s qualified immunity rules have no relationship to those historically established standards. Instead, these rules often make it impossible to hold officials accountable for their constitutional violations.

Second, our brief demonstrates how the district court misapplied the doctrine of qualified immunity in this case. Under this doctrine, an officer can only be held liable for violations of “clearly established” law, based on the idea that officers are entitled to “fair warning” that their actions violated the Constitution. The district court held that the officers’ conduct did not violate clearly established law because the question of whether a Fourth Amendment “seizure” occurs when the police shoot someone who temporarily eludes capture was unsettled at the time they shot Torres. But that analysis is fundamentally flawed because it relies on a fact not known at the time of the shooting: that Torres would be able to escape their use of deadly force. Instead, the proper inquiry should have been whether the officers had fair warning that using deadly force was excessive in situations like the one the officers confronted when they shot Torres. Because binding precedent clearly established that officers may not use deadly force against a suspect who poses no immediate threat of harm to the officers or to others, the officers should not have been granted qualified immunity.

Third, our brief argues that Heck v. Humphrey does not bar Torres’s claim. In Heck, the Supreme Court held that Section 1983 claims are barred when a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would “necessarily imply the invalidity” of the conviction. The district court concluded that this rule barred Torres’s claim because some of her factual allegations would cast doubt on the validity of her convictions. But Heck is not so broad. Torres can make out her claim of excessive force even without proving the allegations that are incompatible with her convictions. Thus, the district court should have struck those allegations from the complaint, rather than barring Torres’s claim entirely.

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