1985 March 27

Supreme Court Limits Police Use of Deadly Force


In Tennessee v. Garner, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time on the constitutional aspects of police use of deadly force, holding the “fleeing felon” rule, the prevailing legal standard at the time, unconstitutional. The fleeing felon rule meant, for example, that a police officer could shoot to kill, for the purpose of making an arrest, a suspected burglar or thief even if the person was unarmed and posed no threat of violence. The Garner case grew out of the shooting of Edward Garner, an unarmed 14-year-old who was fleeing an apparent burglary, by Memphis, Tennessee, police officers on October 3, 1974. The “defense of life” standard replaced the old “fleeing felon” rule, meaning that the police could now use deadly force only when there is a threat to someone’s life, either the police officer of some other person.

The 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.”

Learn more the Garner case and its impact: Candace McCoy, ed., Holding Police Accountable (2010)

Listen to the oral argument in the case: http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1984/1984_83_1035

Read the definitive new book on police shootings: Franklin Zimring, When Police Kill (2017)

Learn more about police accountability: Samuel Walker and Carol Archbold, The New World of Police Accountability, 2nd ed. (2014)

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