Graham v. Connor

Following is the case brief for Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).

Case Summary of Graham v. Connor

  • Petitioner Graham had an oncoming insulin reaction because of his diabetes.  Respondent Connor and other respondent police officers perceived his behavior as suspicious.  In conducting an investigatory stop, the officers inflicted multiple injuries on Graham.
  • The lower courts used a “substantive due process” standard to evaluate Graham’s excessive force claims.  Based on that standard, the courts found that the officers did not use excessive force on Graham.
  • The Supreme Court reversed and remanded that decision.  The Court held that excessive force claims, in the context of an investigatory stop or arrest, should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment, not substantive due process.
  • This case makes clear that excessive force claims must be tied to a specific constitutional provision.  Such claims should not be analyzed under single, generic substantive due process standard.

Graham v. Connor Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Petitioner Dethorne Graham, a diabetic, felt the onset of an insulin reaction.  He asked his friend William Berry to drive him to a convenience store to get orange juice.  Upon seeing a long line at the store, Graham quickly left and asked Berry to drive him to a friend’s house instead.  Respondent Connor, a city police officer, saw Graham’s hasty exit from the store.  He became suspicious that Graham may have been involved in a robbery because of his quick exit.  Officer Connor then stopped Berry’s car.  Although Berry informed him of Graham’s condition, Officer Connor told the pair to wait until he learned what happened in the store.  Backup officers soon arrived.  The officers handcuffed Graham, threw Graham on the hood of Berry’s car, and ignored attempts to explain and treat Graham’s condition.  Once Officer Connor received a report that Graham had done nothing wrong at the convenience store, the officers drove him home and released him.  As a result of the encounter, Graham sustained multiple injuries.

Procedural History:

  • Graham filed suit in the District Court under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against the officers involved in the incident.  Graham claimed that the officers used excessive force during the stop.
  • At trial, the District Court granted the officers’ motion for a directed verdict against Graham.  The District Court found that Graham did not prove excessive force under the four-factor “substantive due process” standard outlined in Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033 (1973).
  • The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision.
  • The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

In evaluating a claim of excessive force in the context of a police stop or arrest, should a court use a substantive due process standard?  No. 


The United States Supreme Court, in a majority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Rehnquist, reversed and remanded the Court of Appeals decision for reconsideration.

Rule of Law:

When a person claims that police used excessive force during an investigatory stop, arrest, or other type of seizure, the claim must be reviewed using the “objective reasonableness” standard under the Fourth Amendment, not under a standard of substantive due process.


  • The Court reasoned that claims of excessive force by police must be grounded in a specific constitutional provision.  Such cases cannot be reviewed under a generic substantive due process standard.
  1. Lower courts have been using a generic four-part substantive due process standard to review claims of excessive force by police.  That approach is incorrect.  The correct approach is for a court to evaluate 1983 claims under a particular constitutional provision, such as the Fourth or Eighth Amendments.
  2. Graham’s excessive force claim in this case came about in the context of an investigatory stop.  A person’s protection against unreasonable seizures during an investigatory stop is protected by the Fourth Amendment.  Accordingly, the courts below should have evaluated Graham’s claim under the Fourth Amendment.  Indeed, the Court used a Fourth Amendment analysis in the case of an officer’s use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).
  3. Unlike a substantive due process analysis, the Fourth Amendment analysis that should have been applied to Graham’s case requires that the officers’ actions were “objectively reasonable” in light of the circumstances, without regard to the officers’ subjective intent or motivation.
  4. In sum, the Johnson v. Glick four-part substantive due process standard used by the lower courts in this case is not compatible with a Fourth Amendment analysis.  The case must be reversed and remanded for reconsideration under a Fourth Amendment analysis.

Concurring Opinion:

Justice Blackmun concurred in part and concurred in the Court’s judgment.  Justices Brennan and Justice Marshall joined in the concurrence.  Justice Blackmun agreed that a Fourth Amendment analysis is appropriate in the pre-arrest context.  However, Justice Blackmun stated that the Court did not need to foreclose the use of the substantive due process standard in some future case.


Up until this case, many lower courts were employing a generic substantive due process standard for all excessive force claims. Graham v. Connor rejects that approach.  Instead, the Court finds that excessive force claims should be analyzed under specific constitutional provisions, such as the Fourth or Eighth Amendments.

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