The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued an opinion in Torres v. Madrid, finding that the “application of physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.” The ruling will likely have a significant impact on Virginia criminal appeals involving Fourth Amendment violations. The case arose when state police officers approached a vehicle that was in a parking spot with its engine on. When the officers attempted to speak to the driver, the driver sped away-believing the officers to be carjackers. In response, the officers fired their weapons, striking the victim twice. The woman switched vehicles and drove to a hospital. The woman was arrested the following day, and she pleaded no contest to three criminal offenses.
The woman filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers, arguing that the shooting was an unlawful seizure and a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The lower court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. The court reasoned that the officers did not “seize” Torres when the shooting occurred, and without the requisite “seizure,” a Fourth Amendment violation could not exist.
Under the Fourth Amendment, the constitution grants individuals the right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Supreme Court explained that historically seizure inquiries involve the common law rules regarding arrest-which is the seizure of a person. Further, the court opined that physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is an attempted arrest, even if the person does not yield.
In this case, the Court found that the officers who used force from afar did not change the seizure analysis. In situations like this, the inquiry is whether the conduct amounted to an intent to restrain. The officer’s subjective motive or perception does not change this inquiry. Ultimately, the court found that the officers seized the victim by shooting her with the intent to restrain her ability to move. However, the court did not opine on the reasonableness of the seizure, the victim’s damages, or the police officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.
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