Tennessee v. Garner: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Supreme Court considers use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect

Armed police officers walking away

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In Tennessee v. Garner (1985), the Supreme Court ruled that under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer may not use deadly force against a fleeing, unarmed suspect. The fact that a suspect does not respond to commands to halt does not authorize an officer to shoot the suspect, if the officer reasonably believes that the suspect is unarmed.

Key Takeaways: Tennessee v. Garner (1985)

  • In Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court used Fourth Amendment analysis to determine whether a police officer's use of deadly force was reasonable.
  • The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Byron White, concluded the use of deadly force against an unarmed, fleeing suspect is not justifiable.
  • The Tennessee v. Garner case influences courts' handling of police shootings of suspects this day.

Facts of the Case

On October 3, 1974, two police officers responded to a late night call. A woman had heard glass breaking in her neighbor’s house and believed a “prowler” to be inside. One of the officers went around the back of the house. Someone fled across the backyard, stopping by a 6-foot fence. In the darkness, the officer could see that it was a boy and reasonably believed the boy to be unarmed. The officer yelled, “Police, halt.” The boy jumped up and began to climb the 6-foot fence. Out of fear that he’d lose the arrest, the officer opened fire, striking the boy in the back of the head. The boy, Edward Garner, died at the hospital. Garner had stolen a purse and $10.

The officer’s conduct was legal under Tennessee law. The state’s law read, "If, after notice of the intention to arrest the defendant, he either flee or forcibly resist, the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest."

Garner’s death sparked over a decade of court battles resulting in a Supreme Court ruling in 1985.

Constitutional Issues

Can a police officer use deadly force against a fleeing, unarmed suspect? Does a statute that authorizes the use of deadly force on an unarmed suspect violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

The Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of the state and city argued that the Fourth Amendment oversees whether a person may be detained, but not how they may be apprehended. Violence will decrease if officers are able to do their jobs by any means necessary. Resort to deadly force is a “meaningful threat” to deter violence, and is in the interest of the city and state. Furthermore, the attorneys argued that the use of deadly force against a fleeing suspect was “reasonable.” Common law revealed that, at the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling, multiple states still permitted this type of force. The practice was even more common at the time of the passage of the Fourth Amendment.

The respondent, Garner’s father, alleged that the officer had violated his son’s Fourth Amendment rights, his right to due process, his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and his Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court only accepted the Fourth Amendment and due process claims.

Majority Opinion

In a 6-3 decision delivered by Justice Byron White, the court labeled the shooting a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment. This allowed the court to determine whether the act was “reasonable” when taking into account a “totality of the circumstances.” The court considered several factors. First, the court focused on whether Garner posed a threat to the officers. He was unarmed and fleeing when an officer shot him.

Justice White wrote:

“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.”

The court was careful to include in its majority opinion that deadly force may be constitutional if a fleeing suspect is armed and poses a significant threat to officers or those around him. In Tennessee v. Garner, the suspect did not pose a threat.

The court also looked to police department guidelines across the country and found that "the long-term movement has been away from the rule that deadly force may be used against any fleeing felon, and that remains the rule in less than half the States.” Finally, the court considered whether its ruling would prohibit officers from effectively accomplishing their jobs. The Justices concluded that preventing officers from using deadly force against an unarmed, fleeing suspect would not meaningfully disrupt police enforcement. There was no proof that the threat of deadly force increased the effectiveness of policing.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice O’Connor was joined by Justice Rehnquist and Justice Burger in her dissent. Justice O'Connor focused on the crime Garner was suspected of, noting that there is a strong public interest in preventing burglaries.

Justice O'Connor wrote:

"The Court effectively creates a Fourth Amendment right allowing a burglary suspect to flee unimpeded from a police officer who has probable cause to arrest, who has ordered the suspect to halt, and who has no means short of firing his weapon to prevent escape.”

O'Connor argued that the majority's ruling actively impeded officers from enforcing the law. According to O'Connor, the majority's opinion was too broad and failed to provide officers a means of determining when deadly force is reasonable. Instead, the opinion invited a "second-guessing of difficult police decisions."

The Impact

Tennessee v. Garner subjected the use of deadly force to Fourth Amendment analysis. Just as an officer must have probable cause to search someone, they must have probable cause to fire on a fleeing suspect. Probable cause is limited to whether an officer reasonably believes that the suspect is an immediate threat to the officer or the surrounding public. Tennessee v. Garner set a standard for how courts handle police shootings of suspects. It provided a uniform way for courts to address the use of deadly force, asking them to decide whether a reasonable officer would have believed the suspect to be armed and dangerous.

Sources

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