Today in 1985: SCOTUS rules that deadly force cannot be used on unarmed fleeing suspects

March 27, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryOver the past several months, stories of alleged police misconduct and abuse of authority have been a familiar topic in the national dialogue due to the events in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014.

Unfortunately, alleged wrongdoing by law enforcement isn’t anything new; civil liberties advocates would be quick to argue that abuses of power remains a constant risk associated with any police force and citizens must remain vigilant against such wrongdoing.

Indeed, it’s because of legal challenges to alleged police misconduct that our nation’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment jurisprudence has seen such an expansion toward the protection of civil rights over the past half-century.  After all, without challenges to alleged police misconduct, we wouldn’t have the entrapment defense or the Miranda warning.

Nor would we have another such constitutional protection, first recognized in Tennessee v. Garner, which the Supreme Court ruled on 30 years ago today, on March 27, 1985.

What protection is enshrined by Garner?  That law enforcement may not use deadly force to prevent the escape of an unarmed suspect unless the officer “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

In other words, unless the officer present has probable cause to believe that the fleeing suspect poses a significant threat to others, the officer cannot use deadly force – even if that means allowing the suspect to escape.

The facts of the case begin with two Memphis police officers responding to a call about a possible burglary from the neighbor of the house purported being burgled.  After arriving on the scene, one of the officers spotted an individual fleeing from the back of the house.  The individual, Edward Garner, ran to the edge of the backyard until reaching a chain link fence about six feet high.  The officer, using a flashlight, was able to discern Garner as being 17 or 18 years old and about 5′5″ or 5′7″ tall (Garner was actually only 15, 5’4” tall, and weighed only 100 to 110 pounds).  The officer also did not see a weapon, and was “’reasonably sure’ and ‘figured’ that Garner was unarmed.”

While Garner was crouched at the base of the fence, the officer shouted, “police, halt,” and took a few steps toward Garner.  Garner began climbing the fence, and the officer, convinced that if Garner made it over the fence, he would elude capture, shot Garner in the back of the head.  He was rushed to the hospital, but died on the operating table.  Ten dollars and a purse taken from the house were found on his body.

It’s debatable whether this could truly be considered police misconduct, since Tennessee then had a law that allowed an officer to “use all the necessary means to effect the arrest” of a fleeing suspect after the officer announces his intention to effect the arrest.

Nevertheless, Garner’s father brought suit alleging that his son’s constitutional rights were violated by the officer’s actions, irrespective of whether they were sanctioned by Tennessee law.  And the Supreme Court agreed.

The Court held that the taking of Garner’s life by law enforcement was a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, that the “intrusiveness of a seizure by means of deadly force is unmatched.”  As such, to justify such a seizure, the state must present evidence that its own interests outweigh those a fleeing suspect has in his or her own survival.

Because the state failed to do so in this case, the use of deadly force was unjustified and unconstitutional.  As noted earlier, however, the Court did note that in circumstances where police have probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a “significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others,” the use of deadly force may be justified.

Although it may seem like common sense to us that police be prohibited from using deadly force in all but the most serious of circumstances, it’s important to keep in mind that this case was only decided 30 years ago, and that such protections may not even exist today if not for challenges to legally sanctioned police action.