Top 10 Cases for Police Series, Part 5

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Editor's Note: With so many cases affecting policing, the question often arises regarding which are the most important. If a law enforcement professional could choose only 10 cases to examine, which would those be? Included in this series is a list of what experts Rolando del Carmen and Jeffery Walker consider to be the top 10 cases most influencing day-to-day policing in the U.S. Continuing from our last installment, in reverse order, we give you number 6: Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).


The police may not use deadly force to prevent the escape of a suspect unless it's necessary 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 to others.


Memphis police officers were dispatched to answer a “prowler inside” call. 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 someone was breaking in next door. While one officer radioed the dispatcher, the other went behind the adjacent house. He heard a door slam and saw someone run across the backyard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a six-foot-high chain-link fence at the edge of the yard. With the aid of a flashlight, the officer was able to see Garner’s face and hands. He saw no sign of a weapon, and, although not certain, was “reasonably sure” that Garner was unarmed. While Garner was crouched at the base of the fence, the officer called out “Police, halt” and took a few steps toward him. Garner then began to climb over the fence. Believing that if Garner made it over the fence he would elude capture, the officer shot him. Garner was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the house were found on his body.


Is the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of an individual suspected of a non-violent felony constitutional? NO.

Supreme Court Decision

“Deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent 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.”


“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 of foot 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 suspect.”

Case Significance

This case clarifies the extent to which the police may use deadly force to prevent the escape of an unarmed felon. The Court made it clear that deadly force may be used only if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or others. In addition, when feasible, the suspect must first be warned. The decision rendered unconstitutional existing laws in more than one-half of the states that imposed no restrictions on the use of force by police officers to prevent the escape of an individual suspected of a felony.

State laws and departmental rules can set narrower limits on the use of force (as in rules stating that use of deadly force may only be used in instances of self-defense), but broader limits are unconstitutional. The court based the decision on the Fourth Amendment, saying that “there can be no question that apprehension by the use of force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.”

For many more cases, see Briefs of Leading Cases in Law Enforcement, 8th ed., which includes short, easy-to-understand briefs of 185 cases of primary importance to law enforcement officials.


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