Tennessee v. Garner

Supreme Court of the United States, 1985.

471 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1.

 

[In this case the Supreme Court holds that use of deadly force by police to prevent the escape of an unarmed felony suspect who does not pose a threat of serious harm is an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.]

 

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

 

      . . . 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. 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, . . . 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. . . . He thought Garner was 17 or 18 years old and about 5'5'' or 5'7'' tall. 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, 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.

 

      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 flees or forcibly resists, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.” Tenn. Code Ann. Sec. 40–7–108 (1982). The Department policy was slightly more restrictive than the statute, but still allowed the use of deadly force in cases of burglary. . . . The incident was reviewed by the Memphis Police Firearm’s Review Board and presented to a grand jury. Neither took any action. . . .

 

      Garner’s father then brought this action in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, seeking damages under 42 USC Sec. 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.” . . .

 

      The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. . . . It reasoned that the killing of a fleeing suspect is a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, 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.” . . . 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 officers or a danger to the community if left at large.” . . .

 

      The State of Tennessee, which had intervened to defend the statute . . . appealed to this Court. The city filed a petition for certiorari. We noted probable jurisdiction in the appeal and granted the petition. . . .

 

      Whenever an officer restrains the freedom of a person to walk away, he has seized that person. . . . While it is not always clear just when minimal police interference becomes a seizure, . . . there can be no question that apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.

 

      A police officer may arrest a person if he has probable cause to believe that person committed a crime. . . . Petitioners and appellant argue that if this requirement is satisfied the Fourth Amendment has nothing to say about how that seizure is made. This submission ignores the many cases in which this Court, by balancing the extent of the intrusion against the need for it, has examined the reasonableness of the manner in which a search or seizure is conducted. . . .

 

      . . . Petitioners and appellant have not persuaded us that shooting nondangerous fleeing suspects is so vital as to outweigh the suspect’s interest in his own life.

 

      The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing suspects.

 

      It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster. . . .

 

      The District Court concluded that Hymon was justified in shooting Garner because state law allows, and the Federal Constitution does not forbid, the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing felony suspect if no alternative means of apprehension is available. . . . This conclusion made a determination of Garner’s apparent dangerousness unnecessary. The court did find, however, that Garner appeared to be unarmed, though Hymon could not be certain that was the case. . . . Restated in Fourth Amendment terms, this means Hymon had no articulable basis to think Garner was armed.

 

      In reversing, the Court of Appeals accepted the District Court’s factual conclusions and held that “the facts, as found, did not justify the use of deadly force.” . . . We agree. . . .

 

      We hold that the statute is invalid insofar as it purported to give Hymon the authority to act as he did. As for the policy of the Police Department, the absence of any discussion of this issue by the courts below, and the uncertain state of the record, preclude any consideration of its validity. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

 

      Justice O’CONNOR, with whom The CHIEF JUSTICE and Justice REHNQUIST join, dissenting.

 

      . . . Notwithstanding the venerable common-law rule authorizing the use of deadly force if necessary to apprehend a fleeing felon, and continued acceptance of this rule by nearly half the States, . . . the majority concludes that Tennessee’s statute is unconstitutional inasmuch as it allows the use of such force to apprehend a burglary suspect who is not obviously armed or otherwise dangerous. Although the circumstances of this case are unquestionably tragic and unfortunate, our constitutional holdings must be sensitive both to the history of the Fourth Amendment and to the general implications of the Court’s reasoning. By disregarding the serious and dangerous nature of residential burglaries and the long-standing practice of many States, the Court effectively creates a Fourth Amendment right allowing a burglary suspect to flee unimpeded from a police officer who has probable cause to arrest, who has ordered the suspect to halt, and who has no means short of firing his weapon to prevent escape. I do not believe that the Fourth Amendment supports such a right, and I accordingly dissent. . . .