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Tennessee v. Garner – Case Brief
Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
Relevant Facts: At about 10:45 p.m. on October 3, 1974, Memphis Police Officers Hymon and Wright were dispatched to answer a “prowler inside call.” Upon arriving, a woman standing on her porch and gesturing toward the adjacent house. She told them someone was breaking in next door. While Wright radioed the dispatcher, Hymon went behind the house. He saw someone run across the backyard. The fleeing suspect, who was appellee-respondent's decedent, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-feet-high chain link fence. With a flashlight, Hymon was able to see Garner's face and hands. He saw no sign of a weapon, and was “reasonably sure” and “figured” that Garner was unarmed. Hymon believed he was 17 or 18 and about 5’5’’ or 5’7’’. Hymon called out “police, halt” and Garner then began to climb over the fence. Convinced that if Garner made it over the fence he would elude capture, Hymon shot him in the back of the head. Garner died on the operating table. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the house were found on his body. 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 flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.”
Garner's father then brought this action in the Federal District Court, seeking damages for asserted violations of Garner's constitutional rights. The complaint alleged that the shooting violated the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amend. It named as defendants Officer Hymon, the Police Department, its Director, and the Mayor and city of Memphis.
Whether the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of an apparently unarmed suspected felon unconstitutional?
We conclude that such force may not be used 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.
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 affirmed with regard to Hymon, finding that he had
acted in good-faith reliance on the Tennessee statute and was therefore within the scope of his qualified immunity. It remanded for reconsideration of the possible liability of the city,
however, in light of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, which had
come down after the District Court's decision. The District Court was directed to consider whether a city enjoyed a qualified immunity, whether the use of deadly force and hollow point bullets in these circumstances was constitutional, and whether any unconstitutional municipal conduct flowed from a “policy or custom” as required for liability under Monell. 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 Supreme Court
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.