Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985)

2012-09-14 04:44:45

Can the police shoot an unarmed, fleeing felon and, ifso, under what circumstances?

On October 3, 1974, around 10:45 p.m., a Memphispolice officer encountered a suspect fleeing fromthe scene of a burglary. The suspect attempted toescape by climbing over a six-foot fence. Although itwas dark, the officer, by using his flashlight, could seethe suspect’s hands and was ‘‘reasonably sure’’ thatthe suspect was unarmed. The suspect failed to stopafter the officer called out, ‘‘Halt, police.’’ Believingthat the suspect would get away if he made it over thefence, the officer shot and killed the unarmed man.

The Court ruled that, unless the suspect poses animmediate threat to the officer or the public, a policeofficer cannot use deadly force to seize the suspect.The Court held that using deadly force to seize ‘‘anunarmed, nondangerous suspect’’ violates the FourthAmendment. The Court expressly rejected the assertionthat it must apply the common-law rule thatallowed the use of whatever force was necessary toeffect the arrest of a fleeing felon.

Three justices dissented, stating that the FourthAmendment did not support the right of a burglarysuspect to ‘‘flee unimpeded from a police officer whohas probable cause to arrest, who has ordered thesuspect to halt, and who has no means short of firinghis weapon to prevent escape.’’


References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Israel, and King, Criminal Procedure, 4th ed.,Hornbook Series. Minneapolis, MN: Thompson/West, 2004, at } 2.9; } 2.9, n.5; } 3.1, n.41; } 3.5; } 3.5,n. 23.
  • Smith, Michael R., Police Use of Deadly Force: How Courtsand Policy-Makers Have Misapplied Tennessee v. Garner,Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy (Spring 1998)(7 SPG Kan. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 100).

See also Arrest; Seizures