Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.
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.
In reaching this conclusion, the Court reasoned that the use of deadly force must be analyzed under the totality of the circumstances test in order to determine if the killing was justified. This requires an individualized determination based on the specific facts and events that led up to the killing of the suspect.
When the Supreme Court applied the rule created in the Garner case to Edward Garner's death, it concluded that the Memphis police officer wasn't justified in using deadly force against the unarmed Garner. The case was sent back for a trial to determine if the city, police department, and individual officers were liable for Garner's death.
In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a law enforcement officer's use of deadly force against a subject constituted a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court determined that in order to justify the killing of the suspect, an officer must have probable cause to believe that the suspect's escape would pose a significant threat to the officer or to other people.
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