After the police released a statement about Mike Brown supposedly committing robbery and stealing some cigars before being killed by a police officer while running away, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity in facts to a prominent Supreme Court case about the use of deadly force. The case was Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985). Per the Wikipedia entry:
At about 10:45 p.m. on October 3, 1974, Memphis Police Department Officers Leslie Wright and Elton Hymon were dispatched to answer a burglary call next door. Officer Hymon went behind the house as his partner radioed back to the station. Hymon witnessed someone running across the yard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-foot-high (1.8 m) chain-link fence. Using his flashlight, Hymon could see Garner’s face and hands, and was reasonably sure that Garner was unarmed. The police testified that they believed Garner was 17 or 18 years old; Garner was in fact 15 years old. After Hymon ordered Garner to halt, Garner began to climb the fence. Believing that Garner would certainly flee if he made it over the fence, Hymon shot him. The bullet struck Garner in the back of the head, and he died shortly after an ambulance took him to a nearby hospital. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the burglarized house were found on his body.
Hymon acted according to a Tennessee state statute and official Memphis Police Department policy authorizing deadly force against a fleeing suspect. The statute provided that “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.”
The United States Supreme Court decided that the officer’s actions violated the decedent’s Fourth Amendment rights. This was, apparently, a departure from the common law where deadly force was permitted against a suspected felon who, given the opportunity to submit to the police, nevertheless attempted to flee. The Supreme Court in Garner reasoned:
The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. 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.
. . .
Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.
For those interested in such things, Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) is another landmark Fourth Amendment case concerning police use of force — more generally and not just the use of deadly force:
The Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” inquiry 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. The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.
An interesting wrinkle to this objective reasonableness test is that it attempts to assess the use of force from the perspective of an “objectively reasonable” officer. The upshot is that constitutionally permitted use of force isn’t rendered unconstitutional due to the subjective malice of the actual officer and constitutionally prohibited use of force isn’t rendered permissible due to the subjective good faith intentions of the officer.