Torres v. Madrid.
No. 22-2001. 2/17/2023. D.N.M. Judge Hartz. Fourth Amendment—Qualified Immunity—Excessive Force—Clearly Established Law.
February 17, 2023
Four police agents went to an apartment complex to serve a warrant on Jackson. Torres’s vehicle was backed into a parking spot in front of Jackson’s apartment, and cars were parked on either side of it. Torres was sitting in her vehicle with the engine running and the doors locked. Agents Madrid and Williamson approached Torres’s vehicle and shouted commands at her to open her door, but they did not announce themselves as police officers. Agent Williamson attempted to open the driver’s door. Torres stepped on the gas and headed forward across the parking lot. Agents Madrid and Williamson fired 15 shots over seven seconds; some bullets hit the front windshield of Torres’s vehicle, most struck the side, and five bullets were fired at the rear of Torres’s vehicle, one of which struck her in the back. Torres drove away from the area and was later treated for her wounds at a hospital. The next day she was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon upon a police officer for driving her vehicle toward Agents Madrid and Williamson (collectively, defendants). Torres entered a no-contest plea to two lesser offenses: (1) aggravated flight from a law enforcement officer and (2) assault upon a peace officer.
Torres later sued defendants under 42 USC § 1983, alleging that they violated her Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force. On defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the district court held that because Torres had successfully fled the scene, she was not seized and therefore not entitled to Fourth Amendment protections. The district court dismissed the case. The Tenth Circuit subsequently affirmed, but the US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to district court, stating that it was irrelevant that Torres had not been apprehended. The Court held that applying physical force to a person’s body with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the person does not submit and is not subdued. On remand, the district court held that Torres’s claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), because her claims were inconsistent with her no-contest pleas. The district court also held that Torres’s claims were barred because defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because her cause of action had not been clearly established at the time she was shot. The district court again granted defendants summary judgment.
On appeal, Torres argued that the district court erred in holding that Heck barred her claims based on being shot in the back. Torres conceded that Heck precludes recovery for force used as she drove toward the officers but argued that bullets were fired, including the one that hit her, after any threat had passed. Heck bars § 1983 claims where a judgment for the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of plaintiff’s conviction or sentence. However,owevrHowever, an an excessive force claim against an officer is not necessarily inconsistent with a conviction for assaulting the officer, so whether Heck bars an excessive-force claim requires comparing the plaintiff’s allegations to the offense the plaintiff committed. Here, Torres’s plea was justified by the alleged danger she caused defendants at the moment her vehicle advanced. But it is not necessarily inconsistent with a claim that defendants later used excessive force when, after such danger had passed, they fired additional bullets into the rear of her vehicle, including the one that struck her in the back. Torres has therefore presented a theory of liability that is not inconsistent with her plea. Accordingly, the district court erred.
Torres also argued that defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity because they used excessive force when they shot at her through her vehicle’s rear window. Defendants maintained as an alternative ground for affirmance that they are entitled to qualified immunity because they did not use force that was excessive under clearly established law. Whether defendants’ use of force was unreasonable, and whether there was clearly established precedent at the time Torres was shot that defendants’ use of force in the specific circumstances of this case was unreasonable, are issues for the district court to decide in the first instance. Here, the district court determined that Torres’s claims were barred by qualified immunity because, at the time she was shot, the law was not clearly established that the Fourth Amendment protects persons who successfully elude seizure. The district court’s analysis relied on Torres’s escape to establish qualified immunity, a fact that was unknown to defendants when they fired at Torres and was thus irrelevant to the analysis. Accordingly, the district court erred in its qualified immunity analysis.
The grant of summary judgment to defendants was reversed. The judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for consideration of whether defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because their use of force was reasonable or there was not clearly established law that it was unreasonable.