Scenario preview: When is a fleeing suspect “seized”?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable “searches” and “seizures.” On Wednesday, the Supreme Court docket is scheduled to hear oral argument in Torres v. Madrid, a situation that will provide important guidance on what constitutes a Fourth Modification seizure. Here’s a rundown of the situation beginning with the applicable details and procedural historical past, followed by a discussion of the lawful issues and lastly a few of items to watch for at the argument.


In the early early morning hrs of July 15, 2014, New Mexico condition police descended on an condominium advanced in Albuquerque. Officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson approached a Toyota FJ Cruiser that was backed into a parking place with its motor operating. The officers tried to talk to the driver, Roxanne Torres. Torres, who says she “thought she was the target of an tried automobile-jacking,” drove off.

Madrid and Williamson, who say they feared for their safety, fired their weapons. Torres was hit two times but did not prevent. She drove to a close by parking whole lot, swapped her seriously broken FJ Cruiser for an unattended Kia Soul with its motor operating, and drove 75 miles to Grants, New Mexico — or, as the briefing helpfully informs the justices, “approximately the distance from this Court to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.” Torres promptly checked into the hospital, in which police arrested her the future working day.

Two several years later, Torres submitted this situation, a civil rights lawsuit against Madrid and Williamson, alleging that the shooting was an unreasonable Fourth Amendment “seizure.” The district courtroom granted summary judgment in favor of the officers, ruling that the shooting did not constitute a “seizure” at all. The U.S. Courtroom of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed. Which is the ruling the Supreme Courtroom will overview in this scenario, with important implications for the admissibility of evidence versus felony defendants, as very well as the viability of too much-force prosecutions and lawsuits towards law enforcement.


The fundamental take a look at for pinpointing a Fourth Modification seizure will come from Justice Potter Stewart’s belief in United States v. Mendenhall: “[A] person has been ‘seized’ inside of the indicating of the Fourth Modification only if, in watch of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a affordable particular person would have considered that he was not cost-free to go away.”

If that had been the only take a look at, Torres would have won by now. Very little claims “you are not absolutely free to leave” like two law enforcement officers with guns drawn, firing bullets into your automobile. But there is a capture. In California v. Hodari D., the Supreme Court offered an addendum to the seizure definition for predicaments when you are not free to leave but you go away anyway.

Hodari D. held (7-2) that a human being being chased by an officer (and so not free of charge to leave) is not essentially seized right until caught. The pursuing language from Justice Antonin Scalia’s the greater part opinion is important to this situation:

The phrase “seizure” quickly bears the which means of a laying on of arms or application of physical drive to restrain movement, even when it is in the end unsuccessful. (“She seized the purse-snatcher, but he broke out of her grasp.”) It does not remotely utilize, having said that, to the prospect of a policeman yelling “Stop, in the title of the law!” at a fleeing type that carries on to flee. That is no seizure.

Hodari D. will make crystal clear that a particular person fleeing from a show of authority is not seized. But it also implies a distinct response after there is physical speak to.

Starting off with the language in Hodari D., Torres and the eight amici supporting her in the scenario present a blizzard of overlapping textual, historical and policy arguments for concluding that the taking pictures in this case was a seizure. The U.S. solicitor normal, arguing in aid of Torres, writes that this conclusion “is demanded by the simple textual content of the Fourth Modification, follows from this Court’s precedent defining a ‘seizure,’ and is consistent with the popular regulation.”

The officers’ response facilities on the textual place. From their perspective, the essential to the case is that to be seized usually means to be stopped, and Torres held heading. Supplying the justices a vibrant-line rule, the officers contend: “The citizen’s ‘freedom of movement’ have to essentially be bodily restrained or controlled for a seizure to come about.” Soon after all, if Torres was seized in Albuquerque, how did she journey 75 miles to a hospital in Grants?

Torres and her amici have an response. Torres was seized the instant she was shot. She was seized again when law enforcement arrested her the future day. In amongst people two events, she was not seized. Torres can concede that there was no “continuous seizure” simply because she only wants a person second. If the initial, momentary seizure was unreasonable, the officers violated her Fourth Amendment legal rights.

Torres’ argument is much better than most momentary-actual physical-contact-seizure statements for two explanations: She was seriously injured by the bullets, and she promptly felt their outcomes. 1 can picture weaker instances in which an software of physical force brings about only fleeting or unnoticed impacts, like a quick grasp of the wrist or a bullet stopped by a blessed belt buckle. But in this circumstance, the officers fired two bullets into Torres’ torso. Torres testified at her deposition that right away just after she was shot, one of her arms turned quickly paralyzed. (Curiously, the decrease-court opinions forget this element of Torres’ testimony — which should be credited at the summary-judgment stage.) Quoting an additional Supreme Court docket scenario, Graham v. Connor, the officers admit that “a Fourth Amendment seizure occurs anytime governing administration actors have ‘in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen.’” They will have to persuade the justices that becoming shot 2 times at shut vary ensuing in partial paralysis is not a restraint on one’s liberty.

On precedent and background, the officers largely play defense. As currently mentioned, the court’s clearest precedent, Hodari D., implies that the genuine application of bodily drive with an intent to stop somebody, even if unsuccessful, constitutes a seizure. As for Framing-era heritage, most of the briefing agrees that at the time the Fourth Modification was adopted, any bodily make contact with through an attempt to restrain a suspect constituted a common regulation “arrest,” the quintessential seizure. But whether or not Framing-era citizens would have imagined that Fourth Modification seizure rights tracked the various common law arrest doctrines, and how a lot that should really make any difference presented the large differences in Framing-period policing, continue being possibly unresolvable inquiries.

What to seem for at argument

There are two matters to appear for in the approaching argument.

(1) How broadly is the courtroom inclined to rule?

The courtroom could rule for Torres in this article, whilst even now leaving home for a various end result in cases with significantly less considerable physical speak to. The District of Columbia Court docket of Appeals, for illustration, located no seizure in a case in which a suspect wriggled out of his coat to escape an officer’s grasp. In people situations, even with the bodily get hold of, the suspect (as opposed to the suspect’s jacket) arguably was in no way “seized.” And that situation, contrary to this just one, raises a possible conflict, hinted at by some of the amici, amongst the constitutional text and the prevalent legislation of arrest. The justices may perhaps want to stay away from confronting that conflict by ruling narrowly in this scenario.

A ruling for the officers, on the other hand, could go away open up the chance that some diploma of true impairment — handcuffs placed on a suspect who then breaks away, or a blow that measurably slows the suspect — can develop a seizure even if the suspect is not promptly stopped.

(2) Is the courtroom thinking about “searches” also?

“Searches” and “seizures” are strongly linked in the Fourth Amendment, divided by only a conjunction. This implies that “search and seizure” instances must share a similar interpretive methodology. Still presently, the two doctrines are nothing at all alike. Lookup cases, powered by the “reasonable expectation of privacy” examination, are a combination of armchair philosophy, speculation about societal norms and strained allusions to dystopian fiction. By distinction, seizure cases appear to hinge on uncomplicated textual interpretation. The court decides no matter if a seizure transpired by making use of the normally recognized this means of a somewhat very clear time period. Specified the plethora of search cases queuing up on the horizon, and the justices’ rising aggravation with their convoluted search doctrine, this hanging distinction might be the most sizeable element of the circumstance. If the justices delight in the analytical clarity of textual seizure evaluation, they may possibly start out to contemplate the added benefits of a comparable methodological technique to the phrase “search.”

Posted in Torres v. Madrid, Showcased, Merits Scenarios

Suggested Citation:
Jeffrey Bellin,
Circumstance preview: When is a fleeing suspect “seized”?,
SCOTUSblog (Oct. 13, 2020, 9:00 AM),