Case Summaries – U.S. Supreme Court (March 25, 2021)

This post summarizes a decision released by the United States Supreme Court on March 25, 2021.

The application of physical force with intent to restrain a suspect, even if unsuccessful, is a Fourth Amendment seizure

Torres v. Madrid, ___ U.S. ___, 2021 WL 1132514 (Mar. 25, 2021) (Roberts, C.J.). Law enforcement officers were attempting to serve an arrest warrant early in the morning at an apartment complex in New Mexico. They noticed the plaintiff in the parking lot and realized she was not the subject of the warrant but wished to speak with her. As they approached, the plaintiff entered her car. According to the plaintiff, she did not immediately notice the police approaching (and was admittedly under the influence of methamphetamine). When an officer tried to open her car door to speak with her, she noticed armed men surrounding her car for the first time and drove off, fearing a carjacking. Although not in the path of the vehicle, the officers fired 13 rounds at the car as it drove away. The plaintiff was struck twice in her back but escaped, only to be apprehended the next day. She sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for excessive force, alleging that the shooting was an unreasonable Fourth Amendment seizure. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers and the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Circuit precedent held that no seizure occurs when an officer’s use of force fails to obtain control of the suspect. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed 5-3.

Under the Fourth Amendment, a seizure of a person occurs when law enforcement applies physical force or when a person submits to an officer’s show of authority. In Hodari D. v. California, 499 U.S. 621 (1991), the Court noted that the application of any physical force to a suspect constituted an arrest (and therefore a seizure) under the common law, even if the use of force was unsuccessful in gaining control of the suspect. “An officer’s application of physical force to the body of a person ‘for the purpose of arresting him’ was itself an arrest—not an attempted arrest—even if the person did not yield.” Torres Slip op. at 4 (citations omitted). This is distinct from seizure by show of authority, where the seizure is not complete until the suspect submits to the authority. See Hodari D. The rule that physical force completes an arrest as a constructive detention is widely acknowledged in the common law.

That the use of force by law enforcement here involved the application of force from a distance (by way of the bullets) did not meaningfully alter the analysis. The Court observed: “The required ‘corporal sei[z]ing or touching the defendant’s body’ can be as readily accomplished by a bullet as by the end of a finger.” Torres Slip op. at 11 (citation omitted). But not all applications of force or touches will constitute a seizure. For Fourth Amendment purposes, only where an officer applies force with an “intent to restrain” the suspect does the use of force rise to the level of a seizure.  An accidental or incidental touching would not qualify, nor would the use of force for a purpose other than with the intent to restrain. Intent to restrain is analyzed under an objective standard. The question is not what the officer intended (or what the suspect perceived), but rather whether the circumstances objectively indicate an intent by officers to restrain the suspect. The level of force used by officers remains relevant in that inquiry. A seizure by application of force lasts no longer than the application of force, and the length of the seizure may be relevant to the question of damages or suppression of evidence. Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the officers here seized the plaintiff by using force with an intent to restrain her.

The defendant-officers sought a rule that no seizure would occur until there is “intentional acquisition of control” by police of a suspect. They contended that the common law rule from Hodari D. was meant to apply only to arrests for civil debt matters, not criminal cases. The majority rejected this argument, finding no distinction at common law between civil or criminal arrests. The common law tort of false imprisonment provides support for the seizure principle at issue—even a moment of wrongful confinement creates liability for false imprisonment, just as a mere touching accomplishes an arrest. The approach proposed by the defendants would eliminate the distinction between arrest by show of authority and arrest by use of force. This would create confusion about when a suspect is considered to be under an officer’s control, and how long a suspect would need to be under the officer’s control.

The dissent faulted the majority’s definition of seizure as “schizophrenic” and inconsistent with the law of property seizures and the Fourth Amendment. The majority responded:

[O]ur cases demonstrate the unremarkable proposition that the nature of a seizure can depend on the nature of the object being seized. It is not surprising that the concept of constructive detention or the mere-touch rule developed in the context of seizures of a person—capable of fleeing and with an interest in doing so—rather than seizures of ‘houses, papers, and effects.’ Id. at 19-20.

The majority also rejected accusations by the dissent that its decision was result-oriented or designed to appear so. The Court noted its holding was narrow. The decision does not determine the reasonableness of the seizure, the question of potential damages, or the issue of qualified immunity for the officers. In the words of the Court:

[A] seizure is just the first step in the analysis. 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.  Id. at 20.

Justice Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Thomas. They disagreed that a mere touching with intent to restrain constitutes a Fourth Amendment seizure where the officer fails to obtain control of the suspect and would have affirmed the Tenth Circuit.  Justice Barrett did not participate in the case.

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