• LTA Staff

Know The Facts (Ignorance Is Bliss)

With the protesting, looting and anger, it is time to stop playing the victim. Stop choosing to be ignorant just because it's "trending". Let's take a look at the facts.


Tennessee v. Garner: The enduring test of “objective reasonableness”

Thirty-five years ago, Tennessee v. Garner drastically changed the legal landscape concerning the use of deadly force by LEOs, paving the way for a unified standard.

Known by most law enforcement officers as “the fleeing felon case,” Tennessee v. Garner 471 U.S. 1(1985) is much more than that. It was in Garner that the U.S. Supreme Court first applied the “reasonableness” standard to police use of deadly force, paving the way for the landmark decision of Graham v. Connor (490 U.S. 386 (1989)) four years later.

While Graham expanded the concept of reasonableness by making it applicable to all police use of force deadly or otherwise, it did not replace Garner. Garner set and remains the standard for evaluating law enforcement use of deadly force.

Tennessee v. Garner set and remains the standard for evaluating law enforcement use of deadly force. (Photo/PoliceOne

THE CASE BEHIND TENNESSEE V. GARNER

On the evening of October 3, 1974, Officer Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright of the Memphis Police Department were dispatched to a burglary call. They met with a neighbor who had heard the sound of glass breaking next door. Officer Hymon went to the rear of the house and observed Edward Garner running across the backyard. Hymon ordered Garner to halt, but instead, he began to climb the fence at the edge of the yard. Hymon, who later reported that he saw no weapon and did not believe Garner to be armed, fired his handgun, striking Garner in the back of the head killing him.

At the time, Tennessee, like some nineteen other states, allowed the use of deadly force to apprehend a suspected felon.




[1] Known by most law enforcement officers as “the fleeing felon case,” Tennessee v. Garner 471 U.S. 1(1985) is much more than that. It was in Garner that the U.S. Supreme Court first applied the “reasonableness” standard to police use of deadly force, paving the way for the landmark decision of Graham v. Connor (490 U.S. 386 (1989)) four years later.

While Graham expanded the concept of reasonableness by making it applicable to all police use of force deadly or otherwise, it did not replace Garner. Garner set and remains the standard for evaluating law enforcement use of deadly force.

Tennessee v. Garner set and remains the standard for evaluating law enforcement use of deadly force. (Photo/PoliceOne)

THE CASE BEHIND TENNESSEE V. GARNER

On the evening of October 3, 1974, Officer Elton Hymon and Leslie Wright of the Memphis Police Department were dispatched to a burglary call. They met with a neighbor who had heard the sound of glass breaking next door. Officer Hymon went to the rear of the house and observed Edward Garner running across the backyard. Hymon ordered Garner to halt, but instead, he began to climb the fence at the edge of the yard. Hymon, who later reported that he saw no weapon and did not believe Garner to be armed, fired his handgun, striking Garner in the back of the head killing him.

At the time, Tennessee, like some nineteen other states, allowed the use of deadly force to apprehend a suspected felon. [1] Garner’s father sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for civil rights violations. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the action against Officer Hymon, finding he acted in good faith and in accordance with state law. However, the court also found that the law itself was unconstitutional as applied and that the shooting had violated Garner’s constitutional rights. [2] It was this decision that was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

A CHANGE IN STANDARDS FOR DEADLY FORCE

Prior to Tennessee v. Garner, law enforcement uses of force had been analyzed by the federal courts in the light of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. [3] Under such an analysis, the court would focus on four factors:

  • The need for the use of force;

  • The proportionality of the force used;

  • The extent of injury to the suspect;

  • The subjective intent of the officer.

Of these, the last often proved the most problematic.

In Garner, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the shooting violated Garner’s constitutional rights. Instead of relying on the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, however, the Court ruled that police use of deadly force should be viewed in light of the Fourth Amendment as a seizure of a person. As such, the Court decided that going forward, the use of deadly force should be governed by the reasonableness requirement found in the Fourth Amendment. [4]

The police department and officer in Garner argued that under the common law any necessary force, up to and including deadly force, was permissible to apprehend a felon and should therefore be allowed. In response, the Court noted that the common law also prohibited the use of deadly force to apprehend a misdemeanant. While in the past most common law felonies were serious crimes usually punishable by death, in modern times the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies is “minor and often arbitrary.”

Based upon the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard, the Court in Garner held that: 

The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable…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.”1] Garner’s father sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for civil rights violations. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the action against Officer Hymon, finding he acted in good faith and in accordance with state law. However, the court also found that the law itself was unconstitutional as applied and that the shooting had violated Garner’s constitutional rights.

[2] It was this decision that was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


A CHANGE IN STANDARDS FOR DEADLY FORCE

Prior to Tennessee v. Garner, law enforcement uses of force had been analyzed by the federal courts in the light of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.


[3] Under such an analysis, the court would focus on four factors:

  • The need for the use of force;

  • The proportionality of the force used;

  • The extent of injury to the suspect;

  • The subjective intent of the officer.

Of these, the last often proved the most problematic.

In Garner, the United States Supreme Court agreed with the lower court that the shooting violated Garner’s constitutional rights. Instead of relying on the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, however, the Court ruled that police use of deadly force should be viewed in light of the Fourth Amendment as a seizure of a person. As such, the Court decided that going forward, the use of deadly force should be governed by the reasonableness requirement found in the Fourth Amendment.


[4]The police department and officer in Garner argued that under the common law any necessary force, up to and including deadly force, was permissible to apprehend a felon and should therefore be allowed. In response, the Court noted that the common law also prohibited the use of deadly force to apprehend a misdemeanant. While in the past most common law felonies were serious crimes usually punishable by death, in modern times the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies is “minor and often arbitrary.”

Based upon the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard, the Court in Garner held that: 

The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable…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.”