John Roberts Tells Cops They Can't Even Shoot Somebody Who Didn't Do A Crime, Like What?
It's Supreme Court season again, and our first one with our new 6-3
fascist conservative majority, so over here at Wonkette, we are ... concerned about where this is going to go.
But guess what! Today we have actual good SCOTUS news! Because yesterday, in a case styled Torres v. Madrid, our Supreme Court managed to actually rule in favor of a person who was shot by the police.
The decision is a good one — and it sets an important precedent for the future, just by ruling something as simple as "shooting a person counts as seizing them." (Yeah, the United States Supreme Court had somehow never really said that until now.)
TL; DR: Police shot a woman driving a car. She got away initially, but ended up being arrested after having to go to the hospital for the gun shot wounds. The cops tried to say shooting her didn't count as a seizure, because she wasn't so incapacitated that she had to stay at the scene. NOT AN UNREASONABLE RULING.
But — and you had to know there was a "but" coming — even though this is a good opinion, it's still unlikely that the woman suing the police will ever even get to go to trial, much less win her case. That's because of a shitty little doctrine called qualified immunity.
When deciding whether a person can sue law enforcement officers for violating their civil rights, the doctrine of qualified immunity requires courts to ask two questions: (1) did the officer violate the person's constitutional rights?; (2) was the right "clearly established" at the time?
In this case, the Court was only dealing with part of question one: Was Ms. Torres detained when the police shot her? It ruled that she was. But now, the lower courts will still have to determine (a) whether the seizure was "reasonable"; and (b) if the seizure was unreasonable, was that clearly established at the time of the events in question?
The "clearly established" part is where most cases get thrown out on summary judgment, which is what is probably going to happen here. This is new Supreme Court precedent, meaning, unless there is an earlier decision on the books of the New Mexico Supreme Court directly outlawing this specific conduct, this case will in all likelihood end up being tossed anyway.
That said, cases like this one are important not just for the litigants, but also for the people who come next. With Torres now on the books, it has at least been "clearly established" that shooting someone is a seizure. And that's not nothing!
Fourth Amendment Who What Now?
The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. And the cops in this case were arguing, we shit you not, that shooting a person multiple times doesn't count as "seizing" them if they are temporarily able to get away.
In July 2014, New Mexico State Police officers went to arrest someone at an apartment complex in Albuquerque. Neither Roxanne Torres nor the person she was with was the target of the arrest warrant, but the cops approached their car anyway, I guess for funsies.
Torres, who was going through withdrawal, didn't notice that the people walking up to her were cops — she just saw people with guns trying to get into her car, thought she was being carjacked, and drove away.
Despite the fact that they knew she wasn't the target of their arrest and she hadn't committed any crimes in front of them, the cops decided that they should use deadly force, and shot 13 bullets at Torres, with two of them hitting her in the back. She eventually stole another car and drove to Grants, New Mexico. As Chief Justice John Roberts quipped in the opinion,
The good news for Torres was that the hospital in Grants was able to airlift her to another hospital where she could receive appropriate care. The bad news was that the hospital was back in Albuquerque, where the police arrested her the next day.
(Am I certain that John Roberts makes light of a police shooting in this way if the person who got shot is a white man who's just "having a bad day"? No, I am not. But I digress.)
The issue in this case was, believe it or not, whether it violated this woman's civil rights to shoot her with no probable cause; or, as SCOTUS put it, "whether a seizure occurs when an officer shoots someone who temporarily eludes capture after the shooting." Because of existing precedent and the inability of so many lawyers and judges to use basic common sense and decency, the lower courts in this case said that shooting at this woman THIRTEEN TIMES for not committing a crime wasn't actually a seizure, because she was able to get away.
Luckily, logic and reason finally had their day in this case and the Court held that,
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.
BECAUSE FUCKING SHOOTING AT A PERSON THIRTEEN TIMES AND HITTING THEM TWICE IS A FUCKING SEIZURE, EVEN IF BY SOME MIRACLE THEY GET AWAY AND DON'T DIE.
The 5-3 ruling saw Justice Kegstand and Chief Justice John Roberts join liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer. Amy Coat Hanger, who wasn't yet on the Court when the case was heard, didn't take part in the ruling
Fuck you, Neil Gorsuch
So, it's a decent opinion! Written by John Roberts! Cool, we'll take it! But just wait for the dissent ...
The dissent, written by Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch and joined by Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, the two objectively worst Supreme Court justices, goes to absurd lengths to say that ACKSHAULLY, what the cops did was just fine, because police can do no wrong and what's so bad about trying to kill people, anyway?
Despite the fact that the cops in this case DIDN'T EVEN MAKE THE ARGUMENT, Gorsuch and crew decided to argue that a seizure only counts if it's your literal hands touching someone and they are indefinitely physically restrained, so shooting at people just totally doesn't count at all unless they die or can't move. (And yes, it's as dumb and nonsensical as it sounds.)
If someone manages to temporarily get away from the police who just used deadly force, even if that deadly force is multiple gunshots that eventually lead to an arrest, the fascist trio says IT'S JUST COMMON SENSE that they haven't been seized.
The dissent entirely takes the cops' account of what actually happened, despite the fact that that's not, legally, what they should do on an appeal of a grant of summary judgment. (Because the cops are the party trying to get this case thrown out at summary judgment without a trial, the court is supposed to construe the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.)
So it's all just adorably bad. Which is to be expected of basically anything that includes the sentence, "This ancient rule serves important purposes." Because gods forbid the law evolve with the times and modern understanding.
The dissenting justices also overlook the fact that this ruling doesn't even mean Ms. Torres will win her suit. All the Court decided was that shooting her in an attempt to stop or kill her counted as a seizure.
So ... yeah
While the dissent is beyond absurd, this is a good outcome for this case!
Like Torres's lawyer Kelsi Corkran said, this opinion
"confirms what I think most people already assumed to be true: The Constitution's protection against police brutality applies regardless of whether the excessive force takes the victim down or whether she instead is able to escape. [...]
An alternative world—where the police are free to shoot someone for no reason at all so long as the person doesn't immediately fall to the ground—is frankly quite scary to think about, and incompatible with the right to personal liberty that forms the foundation of our Constitution."
Particularly in 2021, particularly when we are finally starting to confront American police violence, particularly against people of color, it would have been absolutely horrific to continue to allow cops to shoot randomly at people without any chance at ever being held accountable.
Now, let's abolish qualified immunity.
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