Tennessee v. Garner: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

In the late 1970s, a Memphis police officer shot and killed an unarmed suspect as he fled the scene of a burglary -- but that wasn't the end of the story. This lesson discusses the facts and holding of the Supreme Court's subsequent Tennessee v. Garner decision.

Case Brief

The media coverage of the recent police shootings across the country is unavoidable. It seems like everywhere you turn, there is another news story about a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed civilian. This recent spat of police shootings begs the obvious question: when should a police officer use deadly force against a suspect?

The use of deadly force by law enforcement officers is a hotly debated issue. In 1985, the Supreme Court of the United States was confronted by this polarizing question in Tennessee v. Garner.

The Facts of Tennessee v. Garner

Late one night in Memphis, Tennessee, two police officers were dispatched to investigate the report of a burglary. As the officers approached the home in the report, they witnessed a young African American male fleeing the scene. Both officers noticed that the suspect, named Edward Garner, was unarmed. The officers ordered Garner to stop, but Garner refused. He ran towards a chain-link fence and began to climb. Fearing that the suspect would escape, one of the officers shot Garner in the back of the head. Garner died shortly thereafter.

Garner's family sued the City of Memphis, the police department, and the officers for the death of their son. Garner's family argued that the Tennessee law that permitted the officer to use deadly force against their son was unconstitutional. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Question Presented to the Supreme Court

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the context of the Fourth Amendment, does the killing of a suspect of a crime by law enforcement officers constitute a seizure? If so, when is a law enforcement officer entitled to use deadly force against a suspect?

The Holding and Analysis of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court held that the use of deadly force against a suspect did constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In other words, the killing of a suspect should be thought of as an extreme deprivation of life and liberty, to which constitutional limitations apply.

The Court also determined that a law enforcement officer must have probable cause to believe that the suspect 'poses a significant threat of death or serious injury to the officer or others' before deadly force may be employed to stop the suspect. Probable cause is generally defined as having reasonable grounds to support a particular belief.

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