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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of an Albuquerque woman who was shot in the back by New Mexico State Police while fleeing officers in 2014.
The ruling means the lawsuit filed by Roxanne Torres in federal court against the two officers can proceed.
“The public should feel good that the Supreme Court is taking civil rights and issues of police brutality seriously in this case,” said attorney Kelsi Corkran, who argued the case before the justices last October.
In her lawsuit, Torres says she was sleeping in her SUV in the parking lot of an apartment complex when two police officers wearing dark clothing and tactical vests approached her, and blocked her car with their unmarked cruiser. Officers Janice Madrid and Richard Williamson were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on another woman.
Torres said that, when the officers tried to open her car door, she thought they were carjackers and started to drive away. That’s when Madrid and Williamson – who contend she drove at them – shot at her, striking her twice in the back. Torres crashed the car, stole another one and managed to drive more than 80 miles to a hospital in Grants.
Torres’ attorney, Eric Dixon, said the complaint alleges her Fourth Amendment rights were violated and the seizure was unreasonable since she had the right to be where she was.
“She wasn’t a suspect or wanted for any crime, and wasn’t threatening anybody, including the officers,” Dixon said. “She was an unarmed civilian and they used excessive force by firing on her.”
A State Police spokesman said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He said Sgt. Madrid is still with the State Police and Sgt. Williamson retired in December 2019.
Dixon said his client, now 35, still lives in Albuquerque.
“Ms. Torres continues to suffer from the unjustified use of force against her and looks forward to presenting her case to a jury,” Dixon said. “It was a difficult experience for her, but (she) is overjoyed that the law has been changed for herself and other victims of unjustified police abuse.”
He said the federal lawsuit will pick up where it left off in 2018.
A U.S. District Court judge had dismissed the case, ruling that, since Torres managed to escape, she “was never seized” and “she cannot prevail on her claims that the officers used excessive force in effecting a seizure.”
The 10th Circuit upheld that ruling. But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
In the 5-3 opinion released Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “The question in this case is whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting. The answer is yes: The application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person.”
Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh joined in the 18-page opinion.
Justice Neil Gorsuch – joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – dissented. They criticized the majority opinion, saying it ignores all countervailing evidence, doesn’t offer reasoned explanations and is interpreting the word “seizure” differently for people and objects.
“Our final destination confuses a battery for a seizure and an attempted seizure with its completion,” Gorsuch wrote in a 26-page dissent. “All this is miles from where the standard principles of interpretation lead and just as far from the Constitution’s original meaning.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was not on the bench when the case was heard on Oct. 14, 2020, did not take part in consideration of the case.
Corkran said it’s “an incredibly significant case,” but it also probably confirms what most people already assume to be true. She said the Department of Justice, under the Donald Trump administration, was on their side and had filed an amicus brief in their support.
“If the case had come out the other way, I think most people would be surprised to find out that the police are free to shoot people for no reason at all so long as the person is able to escape and doesn’t immediately fall to the ground,” Corkran said in an interview. “It’s a relief that the court recognized the original meaning and, as a practical manner, why it was important to provide protection here.”
As for Dixon, he said just hearing that the case was going to be heard before the Supreme Court was the “most exciting day of my life” and he is incredibly pleased with the result. The Supreme Court is asked to consider about 10,000 cases every year and hears only a tiny fraction of them.
“It’s a huge victory for civil liberties,” he said. “You never know how these cases are going to go … It was amazing that we got granted in the first place.”