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Police Officers May Not Use Deadly Force to Stop Nonviolent Fleeing Suspects

On October 3, 1974, a Tennessee police officer shot a 15 year-old boy in the head. The officer was responding to a break-in. When he arrived at the scene, he saw the boy on the fence and thought he would escape. So the officer shot him.

 

The young boy, Edward Garner, died.

 

At the time, the officer was just following his police department’s policy, which was to use any force necessary to make an arrest.

 

In Tennessee v. Garner, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the department’s policy was unconstitutional. Specifically, the Court found that a police officer cannot use deadly force “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.”

 

Writing for the majority, Justice White explained as follows:

 

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.

 

Justice White also explained that “[t]he use of deadly force . . . frustrates the interest of the individual, and of society, in judicial determination of guilt and punishment.”

 

However, this Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with criminal law. The Court was only deciding whether the family of Edward Garner could file a civil suit against the police department and the City of Memphis. Whether a police officer who shoots a fleeing suspect would be guilty of murder or some other crime is a different issue altogether.

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