Criminal Justice

Torres v. Madrid

In Torres v. Madrid, the Supreme Court  held that when law enforcement officers shoot and wound someone, they have conducted a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment even if they fail to capture that person after the shooting.

Case Summary

Two New Mexico police officers wanted to question Roxanne Torres as she sat in her parked car. Thinking the officers were carjackers, Torres began to drive away, at which point the officers shot her twice in the back to stop her. 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 brought a civil lawsuit alleging that the officers used excessive force against her in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable “seizures” of persons and property. The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her lawsuit, however, reasoning that because the police did not apprehend her immediately after they shot her, she was not “seized” by the shooting. The Supreme Court agreed to review that decision in December 2019.

CAC filed an amicus curiae brief supporting Torres in the Supreme Court, explaining that the police officers “seized” her under the Fourth Amendment when they shot and wounded her.

As our brief explained, the Framers of the Fourth Amendment would have understood its reference to “seizures” of “persons” as incorporating the legal concept of an arrest. And under the common law of that era, any application of physical force for the purpose of detaining someone qualified as an arrest, whether or not the person eluded capture. Although the Fourth Amendment was not meant to freeze in place the law enforcement rules of the Founding era, applying the common law’s expansive concept of “arrest” to police shootings promotes the Amendment’s purpose—to shield people and their property from arbitrary intrusions by governmental officials. Without this rule, law enforcement officers who lack a valid justification would be able to shoot or otherwise physically harm individuals with no constitutional accountability whenever those individuals managed to escape from them.

Applying the common law rule here also vindicates the Framers’ understanding that when government officers violate Fourth Amendment rights, victims should be able to hold them accountable in civil lawsuits for damages—and that this deterrent is a key safeguard against government oppression. If physically harming a suspect is not a seizure whenever that person manages to elude police, even temporarily, then officers who commit such harm will be exempt from liability even when they had no legal justification for their actions. That would be contrary to the Fourth Amendment’s text and purpose.

In March 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Torres, holding that “the officers seized Torres by shooting her with intent to restrain her movement,” regardless of whether they succeeded in stopping her. Echoing our brief, the Court explained that “the common law considered the application of force to the body of a person with intent to restrain to be an arrest, no matter whether the arrestee escaped,” and it concluded that the Fourth Amendment incorporated this broad standard into the Amendment’s limits on seizures of the person. Law enforcement shootings are therefore regulated by the Fourth Amendment regardless of whether the victim escapes, and they are constitutional only when circumstances make the shooting reasonable.

Case Timeline

  • February 6, 2020

    CAC files an amicus brief

    U.S. Sup. Ct. Amicus Brief
  • March 16, 2020

    The Supreme Court has postponed argument originally scheduled for March 30 due to CV-19

  • October 14, 2020

    The Supreme Court hears oral argument

  • March 25, 2021

    The Supreme Court issues its decision

More from Criminal Justice

Criminal Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Daves v. Dallas County, Texas, et al.

In Daves v. Dallas County, the en banc Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering whether Dallas County’s use of a secured money bail system violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of...
Criminal Justice
March 25, 2021

Supreme Court expands meaning of ‘seizure’ under 4th Amendment

Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON —  The Supreme Court on Thursday expanded the Constitution’s protection against an “unreasonable seizure,” ruling...
By: Elizabeth B. Wydra, By David G. Savage
Criminal Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Terry v. United States

In Terry v. United States, the Supreme Court is considering whether certain individuals sentenced for low-level crack-cocaine offenses prior to enactment of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for reduced sentences under the...
Criminal Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Lange v. California

In Lange v. California, the Supreme Court is considering whether the Fourth Amendment permits the police, in all cases, to pursue an individual into a private home without a warrant while attempting to make a...
Criminal Justice
November 2, 2020

Supreme Court blocks injured officer’s suit against leader of Black Lives Matter rally

LA Times
WASHINGTON —  The Supreme Court on Monday set aside a ruling by a panel of conservative...
By: Brianne J. Gorod, By David G. Savage
Criminal Justice
August 19, 2020

OP-ED: Roberts’ Rules: How the Chief Justice Could Rein in Police Abuse of Power

Take Care
A theme of Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinions this past term is that courts should...
By: David H. Gans