Tennessee v. Garner
471 U.S. 1 (1985)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Tennessee v. Garner

No. 83-1035

Argued October 30, 1984

Decided March 27, 1985*

471 U.S. 1

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.

[2]

(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 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.

[3]

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Primary Holding

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a police officer may use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect only if the officer has a good-faith belief that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

Facts

A state police officer shot and killed Garner as he was fleeing the scene of the crime. Despite knowing that Garner was unarmed, the police officer believed that he was justified in shooting him to prevent his escape. Garner's father brought a constitutional challenge to the Tennessee statute that authorized the use of deadly force in this situation. The state prevailed in the trial court, but the state appellate court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional.

Opinions

Majority

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens

When a non-violent felon is ordered to stop and submit to police, ignoring that order does not give rise to a reasonable good-faith belief that the use of deadly force is necessary, unless it has been threatened.

Dissent

  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Case Commentary

This decision responded to the evolution of the common law, which formerly imposed a death sentence for most felonies. Shooting a non-violent fleeing felon historically would have been permitted because it would have been the same result as if he had been caught and convicted. This is no longer the situation, and the Supreme Court adjusted the rule regarding the use of deadly force to account for it.

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