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A suspect's continued flight after being shot by police negates a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim. This is so, because a seizure requires restraint of one's freedom of movement. Thus, an officer's intentional shooting of a suspect does not effect a seizure unless the gunshot terminates the suspect's movement or otherwise causes the government to have physical control over him.
New Mexico State Police officers went to an apartment complex in Albuquerque to arrest a woman. The officers saw two individuals standing in front of the woman's apartment next to a Toyota FJ Cruiser. As the officers approached the Cruiser, one of the individuals ran into the apartment, while the other individual, plaintiff Roxanne Torres, got inside the Cruiser and started the engine. As soon as the Cruiser creeped a little inch or two, the officers fired at the plaintiff. Two bullets struck plaintiff. Subsequently, plaintiff filed a civil-rights complaint in federal court against the officers, asserting that the intentional discharge of a firearm exceeded the degree of force which a reasonable, prudent law enforcement officer would have applied. The district court construed plaintiff's complaint as asserting the excessive-force claims under the Fourth Amendment, and the court concluded that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. It reasoned that the officers had not seized plaintiff at the time of the shooting, and without a seizure, there could be no Fourth Amendment violation. Plaintiff appealed.
Did the plaintiff’s excessive-force claim under the Fourth Amendment fail, thereby warranting the grant of summary judgment in favor of the officers?
The Court noted that when a defendant asserted qualified immunity at summary judgment, the burden would shift to the plaintiff, who must clear two hurdles in order to defeat the defendant’s motion. First, the plaintiff must demonstrate on the facts alleged that the defendant violated her constitutional or statutory rights. Second, the plaintiff must show "that the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged unlawful activity." In this case, the Court held that plaintiff’s claims failed under the first prong of the qualified-immunity analysis. According to the Court, plaintiff failed to show she was seized by the officers' use of force. Specifically, the officers fired their guns in response to plaintiff’s movement of her vehicle. Despite being shot, plaintiff did not stop or otherwise submit to the officers’ authority. The Court noted that under the doctrine laid down in Brooks v. Gaenzle, 614 F.3d 1213, 1223-24 (10th Cir. 2010), a suspect's continued flight after being shot by police would negate a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim. This was so, because, a seizure required restraint of one’s freedom of movement. Here, the officer’s use of deadly force against plaintiff failed to control her ability to evade capture or control. Without a seizure, plaintiff's excessive-force claims failed as a matter of law.