Tennessee v. Garner

471 U.S. 1 (1985).


Police were dispatched to answer a 'prowler inside call.' One of the officers heard a door slam and saw someone run across the backyard. The fleeing suspect, Edward Garner, stopped at a 6-feet-high chain link fence at the edge of the yard. By using his flashlight, the officer was able to see Garner's face and hands. There was no weapon, and the officer was 'reasonably sure' and 'figured' that Garner was unarmed. The officer thought Garner was 17 or 18 years old and about 5' 5' or 5' 7' tall. The officer called out 'police, halt' and took a few steps toward Garner, who then began to climb over the fence. With the prospect that Garner would escape, the officer shot him. Garner was shot in the back of the head and died on the operating table. Ten dollars and a purse taken from the house were found on his body. Statutory law stated 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.' Department policy allowed the use of deadly force in cases of burglary. The incident was reviewed by the Memphis Police Firearm's Review Board and presented to a grand jury. Neither took any action. Garner's father (P) sued seeking damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for asserted violations of Garner's constitutional rights. The complaint alleged that the shooting violated the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. After a 3-day bench trial, the District Court entered judgment for all defendants. Garner had 'recklessly and heedlessly attempted to vault over the fence to escape, thereby assuming the risk of being fired upon.' The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed with regard to the police officer, finding that he had acted in good-faith reliance on the Tennessee statute and was therefore within the scope of his qualified immunity. The District Court was directed to consider whether a city enjoyed a qualified immunity, whether the use of deadly force and hollow point bullets in these circumstances was constitutional, and whether any unconstitutional municipal conduct flowed from a 'policy or custom' as required for liability under Monell. The District Court concluded that the statute, and officer's actions, were constitutional. Given this conclusion, it declined to consider the 'policy or custom' question. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. It reasoned that the killing of a fleeing suspect is a 'seizure' under the Fourth Amendment, and is therefore constitutional only if 'reasonable.' The Tennessee statute failed as applied to this case because it did not adequately limit the use of deadly force by distinguishing between felonies of different magnitudes - 'the facts, as found, did not justify the use of deadly force under the Fourth Amendment.' Officers cannot resort to deadly force unless they 'have probable cause . . . to believe that the suspect [has committed a felony and] poses a threat to the safety of the officers or a danger to the community if left at large.' The State of Tennessee (D), which had intervened to defend the statute, appealed to the Supreme Court. The city filed a petition for certiorari.