Justices Take Up New Mexico Driver’s Excessive Force Case

(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear the case of an Albuquerque woman shot by two New Mexico State Police officers who say they opened fired because she was driving directly toward them at high speed.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Roxanne Torres disputes that account, claiming she drove off because she thought she was being carjacked.

On July 15, 2014, New Mexico State Police officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson went to an apartment complex in Albuquerque to arrest another woman, who was suspected of having been involved in drug trafficking, murder and other crimes.

Madrid and Williamson spotted two people standing outside. One of them ran into an apartment, while Torres jumped into a parked Toyota FJ Cruiser and started the engine.

Torres claims that when the officers wearing dark tactical vests tried to open the car door, she thought they were criminals trying to carjack her. She “freaked out,” sped off and was shot twice while trying to exit the parking lot, according to court records.

The officers said Torres’ vehicle was driving at them at a high rate of speed and acceleration.

“I began to fire at the driver to stop that vehicle. I didn’t believe that I was going home. I was waiting for the impact,” Madrid told detectives, according to an Albuquerque Journal report.

Torres pleaded no contest to fleeing from police, assault on an officer and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle. The officers were not charged in the incident.

She then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in October 2016, accusing Madrid and Williamson of excessive force.

A federal judge granted summary judgment to Madrid and Williamson on the basis of qualified immunity, and the 10th Circuit affirmed in May.

The Denver-based appeals court found that Torres’ Fourth Amendment claims were invalid because she was not officially arrested or seized during the incident, having evaded police for a full day after being shot.

Torres appealed, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether an unsuccessful attempt to detain someone constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

The justices agreed Wednesday to take up the case. Per their custom, they did not comment on the decision.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief in support of Torres in October, arguing the definition of seizure applies to far more than formal arrests.

“The Tenth Circuit’s rule is…at odds with basic Fourth Amendment principles, in ways that create a dangerous gap in accountability,” the brief states. “It will leave a wide range of physical force deployed by police officers—including blunt force, chokeholds, Tasers, and lethal force—wholly unregulated by the Fourth Amendment.”

The group conceded that police officers can use physical force to stop a fleeing suspect, but said there are still limits to the force they can use.

“That we grant them this power, however, does not mean they should have a free pass to use unreasonable physical force—and to inflict serious harm with that force—on anyone who is fleeing, merely because that force failed to stop the person,” the ACLU’s attorneys wrote.

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