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CONSTITUTIONAL LAW: US SUPREME COURT HANDS DOWN FOURTH AMENDMENT DECISION - TORRES v MADRID

Updated: Mar 26

In an important judgment, the US Supreme Court has today (25th March 2021) ruled in favour of a New Mexico woman in a case relating to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The decision means that the woman, Roxanne Torres, can now sue the New Mexico police for alleged use of ‘excessive force’ during an arrest.


The Fourth Amendment reads as follows:


“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


The original purpose of the Amendment was to enforce the principle that “everyone’s home is their castle” and also protects citizens against arbitrary arrests.


The background to the case is that the police approached Ms Torres, believing that she was the suspect in a murder case and also wanted on other charges. Ms Torres, who was in a car, believed the police to be ‘carjackers’ [1] and drove off quickly. The officers used their guns and fired 13 times trying to stop her, hitting Ms Torres twice. She managed to escape and went to a hospital, where police arrested her the following day.


Ms Torres sued the police. Her case was that shooting her was an ‘unreasonable seizure’ and prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. The police argued that because Ms Torres had escaped, there was no ‘seizure’.


The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where the justices decided, by a majority of 5-3, that a person does not have to be immediately apprehended by the police to sue the police for use of excessive force. Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr stated:


“We hold that the application of physical force to the body of a person with the intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.”


Chief Justice Roberts went on to say: “There is nothing subtle about a bullet.”


The real importance of this case may, ultimately, be the way the definition of ‘seizure’ under the Fourth Amendment has been expanded.


Text Notes:

[1] A 'carjacker' is a person who steals, or tries to steal, a car by force or violence when someone else is in it.



Exercise

Find a word or phrase in the text which means:

1. Something which is said, without being formally proved.

2. To have broken, or failed to comply, with a rule or fail to respect someone’s rights.

3. A solemn promise.

4. Using authority without restraint.

5. To bring civil legal proceedings




ANSWER KEY

1. alleged

2. violated

3. oath

4. arbitrary

5. sue


© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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