Graham v. Connor

490 US 396 (1989)

(The Diabetic Violence Case)

 

Context

In November of 1984, Dethorne Graham suffered an insulin reaction while working on his car at his home. Being a diabetic, Graham knew that he needed to increase his blood sugar level quickly, and asked his friend to drive him to get some orange juice. Graham entered the store and quickly left after seeing a long line at the register, jumping back in the car and driving away. A police officer who happened to be parked at the convenience store followed the car after noticing Graham running in and out of the store unusually quickly. The officer pulled over Graham and his friend shortly thereafter, and Graham ran around the car twice before being stopped by the officer and subsequently passing out due to his insulin reaction. When he came to, Graham was handcuffed and lying face down on the sidewalk. While Graham attempted to grab his diabetic information from his wallet, the police officer shoved Graham’s head against the hood of the car. Graham continued to resist and over the course of his arrest suffered multiple serious injuries. Once they arrived at the police station, the officers determined Graham had committed no crime and returned him to his home. Graham subsequently filed charges against the officers and the City of Charlotte for excessive use of force, unlawful assault, and unlawful restraint constituting false imprisonment by the police officers, as well as charging Charlotte with violating the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by improperly training its officers. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the questions of the case were whether, to prove Graham’s accusation of excessive force by the police officers, Graham needed to show that the officers behaved “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm”, and whether Graham’s claim that the officers used excessive force was to be judged by the “objective reasonableness” standard of the Fourth Amendment. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled in favor of Graham, vacating the District Court’s ruling against him and remanding the case back to the District Court to be judged according to the “objective reasonableness” standard laid out in the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled that Graham’s claim must be judged by the rights given by the Fourth Amendment rather than a general standard of excessive force. This case would lead to all cases of alleged excessive force by police officers being judged by a standard of “objective reasonableness”, meaning that an officer can only legally apply an amount of force that an “objectively reasonable” officer would when placed in the same circumstances. In practice, this has led to acquittals of police officers in numerous cases of alleged excessive force.


How the Justices Voted:

Majority: Rehnquist, joined by White, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy

Concurrence: Blackmun, joined by Brennan, Marshall

 

Facts:

A diabetic felt the onset of an insulin reaction and asked his friend to take him to a convenience store to buy orange juice. When he reached the store and saw how many people were ahead of him, he hurried out and asked his friend to take him to another friend's house. Connor, the officer, became suspicious when he saw Graham enter and quickly leave the store, so he followed Graham. Connor pulled them over for an investigative stop and called for backup while trying to determine if anything happened at the convenience store. Backup arrived and handcuffed and arrested Graham, despite his friends objections that it was a diabetic problem. Backup officers arrived and one of the officers rolled Graham over on the sidewalk and cuffed his hands tightly behind his back, ignoring Berry's pleas to get him some sugar. Several officers then lifted Graham up from behind, carried him over to Berry's car, and placed him face down on its hood. Regaining consciousness, Graham asked the officers to check in his wallet for a diabetic decal that he carried. In response, one of the officers told him to "shut up" and shoved his face down against the hood of the car. Four officers grabbed Graham and threw him headfirst into the police car. A friend of Graham's brought some orange juice to the car, but the officers refused to let him have it. Connor received confirmation that nothing happened at the convenience store, and drove Graham to his house and released him. At some point during his encounter with the police, Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, and an injured shoulder; he also claims to have developed a loud ringing in his right ear that continues to this day.

Question:

What constitutional standard governs a free citizen's claim that law enforcement officials used excessive force in the course of making an arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of his person.      

Reasoning:

In addressing an excessive force claim, analysis begins by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force. The validity of the claim must then be judged by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right, rather than to some generalized "excessive force" standard.

Where, as here, the excessive force claim arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right "to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable . . . seizures" of the person.

Because "[t]he test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application," however, its proper application requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments -- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving -- about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

Holding:

Claims of excessive force are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

 

Key Takeaway:

Excessive force should be examined under the objective reasonableness under the circumstances, and not subjective concepts like malice.    


Court Syllabus:

Petitioner Graham, a diabetic, asked his friend, Berry, to drive him to a convenience store to purchase orange juice to counteract the onset of an insulin reaction. Upon entering the store and seeing the number of people ahead of him, Graham hurried out and asked Berry to drive him to a friend's house instead. Respondent Connor, a city police officer, became suspicious after seeing Graham hastily enter and leave the store, followed Berry's car, and made an investigative stop, ordering the pair to wait while he found out what had happened in the store. Respondent backup police officers arrived on the scene, handcuffed Graham, and ignored or rebuffed attempts to explain and treat Graham's condition. During the encounter, Graham sustained multiple injuries. He was released when Connor learned that nothing had happened in the store. Graham filed suit in the District Court under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 against respondents, alleging that they had used excessive force in making the stop, in violation of "rights secured to him under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and 42 U. S. C. § 1983." The District Court granted respondents' motion for a directed verdict at the close of Graham's evidence, applying a four-factor test for determining when excessive use of force gives rise to a § 1983cause of action, which inquires, inter alia, whether the force was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain and restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm. The Court of Appeals affirmed, endorsing this test as generally applicable to all claims of constitutionally excessive force brought against government officials, rejecting Graham's argument that it was error to require him to prove that the allegedly excessive force was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, and holding that a reasonable jury applying the Johnson v. Glick test to his evidence could not find that the force applied was constitutionally excessive.

Held: 

All claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force -- deadly or not -- in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

(a) The notion that all excessive force claims brought under § 1983 are governed by a single generic standard is rejected. Instead, courts must identify the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force and then judge the claim by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right.

(b) Claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of a free citizen are most properly characterized as invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right "to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable seizures," and must be judged by reference to the Fourth Amendment's"reasonableness" standard.

(c) The Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" inquiry is whether the officers' actions are "objectively reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.

(d) The Johnson v. Glick test applied by the courts below is incompatible with a proper Fourth Amendment analysis. The suggestion that the test's "malicious and sadistic" inquiry is merely another way of describing conduct that is objectively unreasonable under the circumstances is rejected. Also rejected is the conclusion that because individual officers' subjective motivations are of central importance in deciding whether force used against a convicted prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment, it cannot be reversible error to inquire into them in deciding whether force used against a suspect or arrestee violates the Fourth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment terms "cruel" and "punishments" clearly suggest some inquiry into subjective state of mind, whereas the Fourth Amendment term "unreasonable" does not. Moreover, the less protective Eighth Amendment standard applies only after the State has complied with the constitutional guarantees traditionally associated with criminal prosecutions.