• LTA Staff

Graham v. Connor: Three of Guidance and Controversy

Updated: Jun 16

Cited over 54,000 times and the subject of nearly 1,200 law review articles, [1] one cannot overstate the profound effect of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Connor on American law enforcement.


Often equally praised and maligned, the relatively short decision issued on May 15, 1989, held that the use of force by law enforcement officers (LEOs) must be judged by an objective standard of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, the rationale of that decision, and the statements made during the discussion, still spur controversy 30 years later.

Graham v. Connor is an excessive force case arising from the detention and release of a suspicious person by City of Charlotte officer M.S. Connor.


THE EXCESSIVE FORCE CASE BEHIND GRAHAM V. CONNOR

Graham v. Connor is an excessive force case arising from the detention and release of a suspicious person by City of Charlotte officer M.S. Connor.

On November 12, 1984, diabetic Dethorne Graham asked his friend to drive him to a convenience store so he could purchase some orange juice as he believed he was about to have an insulin reaction. Facing a long line upon entering the store, Graham quickly exited, got back into his friend’s car and asked him to drive to a friend’s house.

Graham’s short stay and rapid exit attracted the attention of City of Charlotte (N.C.) police officer M.S. Connor who stopped the car.


He detained Graham and the driver until he could establish that nothing untoward occurred at the convenience store.

During the stop, Graham exited his friend’s car, ran around it and passed out. He was handcuffed and placed onto Connor’s hood. At that point, he came to and pleaded with the officers to get him some sugar. Graham’s friend came to the scene with orange juice, but the officers refused to allow Graham access.


The officers put Graham into a patrol car but released him after an officer confirmed the convenience store was secure.

During the encounter, officers reportedly made comments indicating they believed Graham was drunk and cursed at him. Graham reportedly suffered multiple injuries and sued the city and several officers, including Connor, for violating his constitutional rights.


After the federal trial court granted a directed verdict [2] dismissing all defendants, plaintiff Dethorne Graham appealed to the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the dismissal. The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case back to the Fourth Circuit for reconsideration of the case under a new standard for interpreting law enforcement use of force that would change the legal landscape.



A STANDARD TO ANALYZE POLICE USE OF FORCE

The Graham court focused on “unreasonable seizures” and decided all LE use of force must be examined under the Fourth Amendment not the Eighth Amendment, as the latter required some inquiry into the subjective beliefs of the LEO.

The Fourth Amendment provides, in relevant part: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” This was consistent with the Court’s holding three years prior in Tennessee v. Garner, which relied primarily on the Fourth Amendment to review a LEO’s use of force on a fleeing suspect.


The Court set out a simple standard for courts to analyze law enforcement use of force. The desired standard would be objective as the Eighth Amendment “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition necessitated too much focus on the subjective beliefs and intentions of the involved LEOs, which may or may not have had any effect on the outcome of the encounter:


[3] “As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the ‘reasonableness’ inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers' actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation…An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.”

The principle is rather straightforward and generally not controversial. However, the remaining analysis sparked a fire of controversy that continues today.



9 views

Recent Posts

See All