Tennessee v. Garner

Following is the case brief for Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).

Case Summary of Tennessee v. Garner:

  • Police officer shot and killed an unarmed fleeing suspect – Garner.
  • Garner’s family sued, alleging that Garner’s constitutional rights were violated.
  • The District Court found no constitutional violation.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held that deadly force cannot be used against a fleeing suspect unless the suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or others.

Tennessee v. Garner Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

On an October evening in 1973, Memphis police officers responded to a burglary call.  One of the officers went to the back of the house and saw a fleeing suspect — 15-year-old Edward Garner.  Garner ran across the yard and stopped at a chain-link fence.  With a flashlight, the officer could see that Garner was likely unarmed.  The officer told Garner to stop.  Garner, however, began to climb the fence.  The officer then shot Garner, striking him in the back of the head.  He died shortly thereafter.

Tennessee statute (and Memphis Police policy) at that time allowed a police officer to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect.  Neither the Memphis Police Firearms Review Board nor a grand jury took any action in the case.

Procedural History:

Garner’s father filed an action, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, in Federal District Court.  Garner’s father alleged violations of Garner’s constitutional rights.  The District Court found that the Tennessee statute, and the officer’s actions, were constitutional.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is it constitutional to use deadly force against an unarmed felon who is fleeing?  No.

Judgment:

Court of Appeals judgment is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Deadly force may not be used against a fleeing suspect unless such force is necessary to prevent the suspect’s escape and there is probable cause to believe that the suspect presents a serious threat to the officer or others.

Reasoning:

  • Stopping a suspect with deadly force is a Fourth Amendment “seizure.” 

As a threshold matter, apprehending a suspect by deadly force is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court noted that deadly force is obviously the most intrusive type of seizure possible because the suspect’s life is in jeopardy.  Accordingly, the Court must balance the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights with the Government’s justification for intruding on those rights.

  • Government’s use of deadly force is not justified when a fleeing suspect is unarmed.

The Court noted that Garner was unarmed.  It concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances of the case, the Government was not justified in using deadly force against the unarmed Garner.

The Court cautioned that the use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect is not always unconstitutional.  Such force can be used if there is probable cause that the fleeing suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or others.

Dissenting Opinion (O’Connor):

Justice O’Connor, in dissent, stated that the Court’s opinion expands the Fourth Amendment too far.  Justice O’Connor stated that now there is a right for a burglary suspect to flee unimpeded, even if an officer has no means of preventing escape short of using deadly force.

Significance:

Tennessee v. Garner has served as an important guide to law enforcement.  It states that a fleeing suspect must present a significant threat before an officer can use deadly force.  In addition, the case is an important guide to courts.  The case reinforces the notion that courts should take account of the “totality of the circumstances” in reviewing Fourth Amendment cases.

Student Resources:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/471/1/case.html

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1984/83-1035

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