Tennessee v. Garner

471 US 1 (1985)

(The Deadly Force at Night Case)

 

Context

The Supreme Court determined in United States v Brignoni-Ponce (1975) that an officer’s order restricting the movement of an individual constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. United States v Mendenhall (1980) reaffirmed that ruling and established that police apprehension through deadly force is a seizure that is subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment. On October 3, 1974 in Memphis, Tennessee, police officers responded to a report of a burglary. After arriving at the scene, officers saw the suspect, 15-year-old Edward Garner, apparently unarmed and fleeing towards a 6-foot-tall fence. An officer ordered Garner to stop, but Garner began climbing the fence. Certain that Garner would flee if he made it over the fence, the officer shot at Garner. The officer’s shot hit Garner in the back of his head, and he died shortly thereafter. According to Tennessee statutory law, if an officer warns a suspect of the officer’s intent to arrest and the suspect flees or resists, an officer may use “all the necessary means to effect the arrest”. After the incident, Garner’s father sued the City of Memphis, the mayor, the Memphis Police Department, its director, and the officer who shot Edward Garner under, claiming violations of his son’s rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. After the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Garner and against the Tennessee statute, Tennessee appealed to the Supreme Court. The state argued that under United States v Watson (1976), police officers may arrest an individual if they have probable cause to believe that the individual committed a crime, with the Fourth Amendment providing no requirements as to how that arrest is made. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Garner. Justice White wrote for the majority, stating that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of deadly force unless it is required to prevent a felon from escaping and the officer has probable cause to believe that the escaping felon poses a significant threat of death or serious harm to the officer or the community. That is—use of deadly force is permissible in some cases, but the Tennessee statute is unconstitutional in that it permits the use of deadly force in cases where an unarmed felon who does not pose a violent threat attempts to escape. Using deadly force in these circumstances constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In the majority opinion, Justice White quoted the Court’s opinion in United States v Place (1983) that the nature of the intrusion upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights must be considered in proportion to the government’s interest in detaining that individual. In her dissent, Justice O’Connor argued that the majority’s decision did not take into consideration the spur-of-the-moment decisions that police officers are often required to make. Although this case established an important precedent, Graham v Connor, decided four years later, would add into consideration Justice O’Connor’s point and give more weight to the perspective of the police officer at the moment the incident occurred.


Facts:

At about 10:45 p. m. officers were dispatched to answer a "prowler inside call." Upon arriving at the scene they saw a woman standing on her porch and gesturing toward the adjacent house. She told them she had heard glass breaking and that "they" or "someone" was breaking in next door. While Wright radioed the dispatcher to say that they were on the scene, Hymon went behind the house. He heard a door slam and saw someone run across the backyard. The fleeing suspect, who was appellee-respondent's decedent, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-feet-high chain link fence at the edge of the yard. With the aid of a flashlight, Hymon was able to see Garner's face and hands. He saw no sign of a weapon, and, though not certain, was "reasonably sure" and "figured" that Garner was unarmed. He thought Garner was 17 or 18 years old and about 5'5" or 5'7" tall. While Garner was crouched at the base of the fence, Hymon called out "police, halt" and took a few steps toward him. Garner then began to climb over the fence. Convinced that if Garner made it over the fence he would elude capture, Hymon shot him. The bullet hit Garner in the back of the head. Garner was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died on the operating table. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the house were found on his body.

Tennessee v. Garner

Question:

Whether officers may use deadly force in the apprehension of criminals. (implied)

Reasoning:

While it is not always clear just when minimal police interference becomes a seizure, there can be no question that apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

To determine the constitutionality of a seizure "[we] must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion." Because one of the factors is the extent of the intrusion, it is plain that reasonableness depends on not only when a seizure is made, but also how it is carried out.

The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.

While we agree that burglary is a serious crime, we cannot agree that it is so dangerous as automatically to justify the use of deadly force. Although the armed burglar would present a different situation, the fact that an unarmed suspect has broken into a dwelling at night does not automatically mean he is physically dangerous.                   

Holding:

Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.

 

Key Takeaway:

Apprehending someone by shooting them is a seizure. Deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and 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.


Court Syllabus:

A Tennessee statute provides that if, after a police officer has given notice of an intent to arrest a criminal suspect, the suspect flees or forcibly resists, "the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest." Acting under the authority of this statute, a Memphis police officer shot and killed appellee-respondent Garner's son as, after being told to halt, the son fled over a fence at night in the backyard of a house he was suspected of burglarizing. The officer used deadly force despite being "reasonably sure" the suspect was unarmed and thinking that he was 17 or 18 years old and of slight build. The father subsequently brought an action in Federal District Court, seeking damages under 42 U. S. C. § 1983 for asserted violations of his son's constitutional rights. The District Court held that the statute and the officer's actions were constitutional. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against, as in this case, an apparently unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect; such force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and 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.

(a) Apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement. To determine whether such a seizure is reasonable, the extent of the intrusion on the suspect's rights under that Amendment must be balanced against the governmental interests in effective law enforcement. This balancing process demonstrates that, notwithstanding probable cause to seize a suspect, an officer may not always do so by killing him. The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable.

(b) The Fourth Amendment, for purposes of this case, should not be construed in light of the common-law rule allowing the use of whatever force is necessary to effect the arrest of a fleeing felon. Changes in the legal and technological context mean that that rule is distorted almost beyond recognition when literally applied. Whereas felonies were formerly capital crimes, few are now, or can be, and many crimes classified as misdemeanors, or nonexistent, at common law are now felonies. Also, the common-law rule developed at a time when weapons were rudimentary. And, in light of the varied rules adopted in the States indicating a long-term movement away from the common-law rule, particularly in the police departments themselves, that rule is a dubious indicium of the constitutionality of the Tennessee statute. There is no indication that holding a police practice such as that authorized by the statute unreasonable will severely hamper effective law enforcement.

(c) While burglary is a serious crime, the officer in this case could not reasonably have believed that the suspect -- young, slight, and unarmed -- posed any threat. Nor does the fact that an unarmed suspect has broken into a dwelling at night automatically mean he is dangerous.


How the Justices Voted:

Majority: White, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens

Dissent: O'Connor, joined by Burger, Rehnquist