Court Expands Victim Protection for Lawsuits on Police Use of Force

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U.S. Supreme Court. Photo by John Kocijanski via Flickr.

The Supreme Court has expanded protection for those who sue after being injured by police, saying that an unconstitutional “seizure” can take place even if the person is able to avoid being detained or arrested, reports the Washington Post.

In related news, the New York City Council passed legislation on Thursday aimed at reining in police misconduct by making it far easier to sue officers for conducting illegal searches or using excessive force, the New York Times reports.

For decades, the police across the country have been able to invoke an esoteric legal doctrine known as qualified immunity to protect themselves from lawsuits claiming they had violated the constitutional rights of people they arrested.

In the aftermath of the protests against the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, ending the use of that defense on the local and federal levels has become a top demand of police reform activists.

With the council’s vote, New York City becomes the largest jurisdiction to limit the ability of officers to invoke the defense, joining the states of Colorado and Connecticut. Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference on Thursday that he supported the legislation, suggesting he would not veto it.

“What we are doing is saying the police can’t walk into the courtroom and say, ‘The plaintiff has no right to bring me here because I am immune,’” said Councilman Stephen Levin, D-Brooklyn, who sponsored the bill.

“This is about giving people a right to protect the most fundamental rights in our democracy.”

The bill was one of several police-reform measures passed by the City Council on Thursday. City lawmakers also gave final approval to de Blasio’s $72 million plan for improving police practices and accountability, which Gov Andrew M Cuomo has asked all jurisdictions in the state to finish before April 1.

The Torres v. Madrid case concerns a New Mexico woman, Torres, who fled from the police after they arrived at an apartment she was in to serve a warrant to someone else and fired thirteen shots at her as she fled, striking her in the back twice.  When she was later apprehended at a local hospital, Torres pleaded no contest to aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer, assault on a peace officer and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle, but two years later sued, saying the officers used excessive force and thus made the shooting an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

A district judge dismissed the suit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed, saying “a suspect’s continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim” because “no seizure can occur unless there is physical touch or a show of authority,” and that “such physical touch (or force) must terminate the suspect’s movement.”

However, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that approach was too limited, pointing to a 1991 Justice Scalia decision that said “the word ‘seizure’ readily bears the meaning of a laying on of hands or application of physical force to restrain movement, even when it is ultimately unsuccessful.” The high court thus approved the lawsuit on a 5-to-3 vote.

Meanwhile, Vox reports that the Torres decision means that officers will not be immune from Fourth Amendment lawsuits because they tried but failed to detain someone using excessive force. However, the decision also reveals the complex interpretations of the fourth amendment needed to decide what exactly constitutes being “seized” by an officer and the trouble that a more restrictive interpretation could represent for any victim of an unlawful police shooting who seeks recourse through the courts.

Justice Neil Gorsuch’s descent to the Torres case, in which he argued that police must actually take “possession of someone or something” in order to “seize” it, essentially means that if an officer unlawfully shoots two people, one in the arm and the other in the leg, and the one shot in the arm runs away, only the one shot in the leg can sue.  Under Robert’s rule, both victims could sue.

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