Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Fall 2020 SCOTUS in the Classroom Case

We are excited to announce our first SCOTUS in the Classroom case of the school year: Torres v. Madrid. This timely case deals with excessive use of force by the police, qualified immunity, and the meaning of “seizure” in the Fourth Amendment.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the oral arguments in this case will take place via telephone on October 14, 2020. They will be made available for the media to broadcast LIVE! Teachers and students are encouraged to hold virtual moot courts (or mini-moot courts) of the case the same week that the Supreme Court hears arguments, giving students the opportunity to follow discussion and analysis in the news and, of course, tune in live.

You can find the case summary, additional resources, and instructions and handouts for conducting a moot court on our SCOTUS in the Classroom page. And check out our Materials for At-Home Learning for ideas for adapting SCOTUS in the Classroom materials to distance learning.

Case Background

In the early morning of July 15, 2014 Roxanne Torres dropped off a friend at her apartment building. New Mexico police officers Madrid and Williamson arrived in an unmarked car with an arrest warrant for a woman who had no connection to Torres. Thinking Torres might be the suspect they were looking for or have information, Officers Madrid and Williamson got out of their cars and stood next to Torres’ car. The officers said they gave Torres verbal commands, but she testified that she did not hear the commands. When she did not respond, the officers tried to open the driver’s door. Torres noticed the guns and their dark clothing but said she did not see the tactical vests with identifying badges on them.

Torres said she believed the police officers were carjackers, so drove forward to get away from them fearing for her safety. The officers fired 13 shots hitting Torres’ car several times as she continued to drive away. Two of the bullets hit Torres in the back, allegedly paralyzing her arm. Torres continued driving for a short distance but collided with another car. She asked bystanders to call 911 but did not wait for the police to arrive. She took an unattended running car and drove herself over 75 miles away to a hospital. She was later airlifted to a larger hospital in Albuquerque.

The next day officers arrested Torres at the hospital on charges from the incident. Torres later pled no contest to three crimes: aggravated fleeing from a law enforcement officer, assault upon a police officer, and unlawfully taking a motor vehicle.

On October 21, 2016, Torres filed a civil rights complaint for use of excessive force against Madrid and Williamson. The officers filed a motion claiming Torres was never seized because she did not stop. Because an excessive force claim requires a seizure, they argued no excessive force claim could be made. The District Court agreed and granted their motions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed the decision that Torres was not seized. Other courts have ruled that this type of encounter is a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. Torres asked the Supreme Court to hear her case, and it agreed.

This case asks the following important question: Does the application of lethal force to restrain a suspect constitute a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, even if the force does not immediately stop the person or result in the physical control or custody of the suspect?

SCOTUS in the Classroom is made possible by the support of the Supreme Court Historical Society

Image: Black and white photo of three officers