Graham v. Connor: The Case and Its Impact

The Supreme Court ruling on how to assess excessive use of force by police

Close-up of a red and blue police siren light
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Graham v. Connor ruled on how police officers should approach investigatory stops and the use of force during an arrest. In the 1989 case, the Supreme Court ruled that excessive use of force claims must be evaluated under the "objectively reasonable" standard of the Fourth Amendment. This standard requires courts to consider the facts and circumstances surrounding an officer's use of force rather than the intent or motivation of an officer during that use of force.

Fast Facts: Graham v. Connor

  • Case Argued: Feb. 21, 1989
  • Decision Issued: May 15, 1989
  • Petitioner: Dethorne Graham, a diabetic who had an insulin reaction while doing auto work at his home
  • Respondent: M.S. Connor, a Charlotte police officer
  • Key Questions: Did Graham have to show that the police acted “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm” to establish his claim that Charlotte police used excessive force? Should the claim of excessive force be analyzed under the Fourth, Eighth, or 14th Amendment?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Rehnquist, White, Stevens, O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall
  • Dissenting: None
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court ruled that excessive use of force claims must be evaluated under the "objectively reasonable" standard of the Fourth Amendment, which requires courts to consider the facts and circumstances surrounding an officer's use of force rather than the intent or motivation of an officer during that use of force.

Facts of the Case

Graham, a diabetic man, rushed into a convenience store to buy orange juice to help counteract an insulin reaction. It only took him a few seconds to realize that the line was too long for him to wait. He abruptly left the store without purchasing anything and returned to his friend’s car. A local police officer, Connor,  witnessed Graham entering and exiting the convenience store quickly and found the behavior odd.

Connor made an investigative stop, asking Graham and his friend to remain in the car until he could confirm their version of events. Other officers arrived on the scene as backup and handcuffed Graham. He was released after the officer confirmed that nothing had occurred within the convenience store, but significant time had passed and the backup officers had refused him treatment for his diabetic condition. Graham also sustained multiple injuries while handcuffed.

Graham filed a suit in a district court alleging that Connor had “used excessive force in making the investigatory stop, in violation of ‘rights secured to him under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.'” Under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a jury found that the officers had not used excessive force. On appeal, judges could not decide whether a case of excessive use of force should be ruled based on the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments. The majority ruled based on the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was ultimately taken to the Supreme Court.

Constitutional Issues

How should claims of excessive use of force be handled in court? Should they be analyzed under the Fourth, Eighth, or Fourteenth Amendment?

The Arguments

Graham's counsel argued that the officer’s actions violated both the Fourth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The stop and search itself was unreasonable, they argued, because the officer did not have sufficient probable cause to stop Graham under the Fourth Amendment. In addition, counsel contended that the excessive use of force violated the due process clause, because an agent of the government had deprived Graham of liberty without just cause.

The attorneys representing Connor argued that there was no use of excessive force. They contended that, under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, excessive use of force should be judged by a four-prong test found in the case Johnston v. Glick. The four prongs are:

  1. The need for the application of force; 
  2. The relationship between that need and the amount of force that was used;
  3. The extent of the injury inflicted; and
  4. Whether the force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm

Connor's attorneys stated that he had only applied force in good faith, and that he had no malicious intent when detaining Graham.

Majority Opinion

In a unanimous decision delivered by Justice Rehnquist, the court found that excessive use of force claims against police officers should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment. They wrote that the analysis should take into account the “reasonableness” of the search and seizure. To determine if an officer used excessive force, the court must decide how an objectively reasonable another police officer in the same situation would have acted. The officer’s intent or motivation should be irrelevant in this analysis.

In the majority opinion, Justice Rehnquist wrote:

“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 court struck down previous lower court rulings, which used the Johnston v. Glick test under the Fourteenth Amendment. That test required the court to consider motives, including whether the force was applied in “good faith” or with “malicious or sadistic” intent. Eighth Amendment analysis also called for subjective consideration because of the phrase “cruel and unusual” found in its text. The Court found that objective factors are the only relevant factors when evaluating claims of excessive use of force, making the Fourth Amendment the best means of analysis.

The court reiterated previous findings in Tennessee v. Garner to highlight jurisprudence on the matter. In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court had similarly applied the Fourth Amendment to determine whether the police should have used deadly force against a fleeing suspect if that suspect appeared unarmed. In that case as well as in Graham v. Connor, the court decided that they must consider the following factors to determine whether the force used was excessive:

  1. The severity of the crime at issue; 
  2. Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and 
  3. Whether [the suspect] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. 

The Impact

The Graham v. Connor case created a set of rules that officers abide by when making investigatory stops and using force against a suspect. Under Graham v. Connor, an officer must be able to articulate the facts and circumstances that led up to a use of force. The finding invalidated previously held notions that an officer’s emotions, motivations, or intent should affect a search and seizure. Police officers must be able to point to objectively reasonable facts that justify their actions, rather than relying on hunches or good faith.

Key Takeaways

  • In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court determined that the Fourth Amendment is the only amendment that matters when deciding whether a police officer used excessive force.
  • In other words, when evaluating whether an officer used excessive force, the Court must take into account the facts and circumstance of the action, rather than the officer's subjective perceptions.
  • The ruling also rendered the Fourteenth and Eight Amendments irrelevant when analyzing an officer's actions, because they rely on subjective factors.


  • Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).