471 U.S. 1 (1985), 83-1035, Tennessee v. Garner

Docket Nº:No. 83-1035
Citation:471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1, 53 U.S.L.W. 4410
Party Name:Tennessee v. Garner
Case Date:March 27, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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471 U.S. 1 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1, 53 U.S.L.W. 4410

Tennessee

v.

Garner

No. 83-1035

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1985

Argued October 30, 1984

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE

SIXTH CIRCUIT

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. Pp. 7-22.

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(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. Pp. 7-12.

(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 [105 S.Ct. 1697] statute unreasonable will severely hamper effective law enforcement. Pp. 12-20.

(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. Pp. 20-22.

710 F.2d 240, affirmed and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post p. 22.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to determine the constitutionality of the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of an apparently unarmed suspected felon. We conclude that such 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.

I

At about 10:45 p. m. on October 3, 1974, Memphis Police Officers Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright 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.1 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. App. 41, 56; Record 219. He thought Garner was 17 or 18 years old and

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about 5' 5" or 5' 7" tall.2 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,3 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.4

[105 S.Ct. 1698] In using deadly force to prevent the escape, Hymon was acting under the authority of a Tennessee statute and pursuant to Police Department policy. The statute provides that

[i]f, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.

Tenn.Code Ann.

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§ 40-7-108 (1982).5 The Department policy was slightly more restrictive than the statute, but still allowed the use of deadly force in cases of burglary. App. 140-144. The incident was reviewed by the Memphis Police Firearm's Review Board and presented to a grand jury. Neither took any action. Id. at 57.

Garner's father then brought this action in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for asserted violations of Garner's constitutional rights. The complaint alleged that the shooting violated the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. It named as defendants Officer Hymon, the Police Department, its Director, and the Mayor and city of Memphis. After a 3-day bench trial, the District Court entered judgment for all defendants. It dismissed the claims against the Mayor and the Director for lack of evidence. It then concluded that Hymon's actions were authorized by the Tennessee statute, which in turn was constitutional. Hymon had employed the only reasonable and practicable means of preventing Garner's escape. Garner had "recklessly and heedlessly attempted to vault over the fence to escape, thereby assuming the risk of being fired upon." App. to Pet. for Cert. A10.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed with regard to Hymon, finding that he had acted in good faith reliance on the Tennessee statute, and was therefore within the scope of his qualified immunity. 600 F.2d 52 (1979). It remanded for reconsideration of the possible liability of the city, however, in light of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), which had come down after the District Court's decision. The District Court was

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directed to consider whether a city enjoyed a qualified immunity, whether the use of deadly force and hollow point bullets in these circumstances was constitutional, and whether any unconstitutional municipal conduct flowed from a "policy or custom" as required for liability under Monell. 600 F.2d at 54-55.

The District Court concluded that Monell did not affect its decision. While acknowledging some doubt as to the possible immunity of the city, it found that the statute, and Hymon's actions, were constitutional. Given this conclusion, it declined to consider the "policy or custom" question. App. to Pet. for Cert. A37-A39.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. 710 F.2d 240 (1983). It reasoned that the killing of a fleeing suspect is a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment,6 and is therefore constitutional only if "reasonable." The Tennessee statute failed as applied to this case, because it did not adequately limit the use of deadly force by distinguishing between felonies of different magnitudes -- "the facts, as found, did not justify the use of deadly force under the Fourth Amendment." Id. at 246. Officers cannot resort to deadly force unless they

have probable cause . . . to believe that the suspect [has committed a felony and] poses a threat to the safety of the [105 S.Ct. 1699] officers or a danger to the community if left at large.

Ibid.7

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The State of Tennessee, which had intervened to defend the statute, see 28 U.S.C. § 2403(b), appealed to this Court. The city filed a petition for certiorari. We noted probable jurisdiction in the appeal, and granted the petition. 465 U.S. 1098 (1984).

II

Whenever an officer restrains the freedom of a person to walk away, he has seized that person. United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878 (1975). While it is not always clear just when minimal police interference becomes a seizure, see United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980), there can be no question that...

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