Memphis police officers were dispatched to answer a ‘prowler inside call’ on one night in 1974. A woman had called the police to notify them of a burglary that was taking place in the house adjacent to hers. When the police arrived at the scene, one of the officers went behind the house only to see someone run across the backyard. The fleeing man was later identified as the respondent’s son. The suspect then tried to climb a six feet high fence in trying to escape. The police officer shone a flashlight on the suspect and was able to see his hands and face. He then alerted the suspect that he was a police officer and ordered him to stop. The suspect did not pay heed to this order and continued his flight. The police officer was convinced that if he did not act fast the suspect would get away. He then shot the man and the bullet hit the suspect at the back of his head. Garner’s son, the suspect, sustained serious injuries and was rushed to the hospital where he died during operation. The police discovered that the suspect had only taken ten dollars and a purse from the house. It was also later found that the suspect was only a fifteen year old boy.
The suspect’s father then sued in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee claiming damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983, for violation of his son’s constitutional rights. In the suit, Garner brought action against the city of Memphis, the Police Department and the officer who did the shooting. The plaintiff alleged that the shooting was in contravention of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. The argument advanced was that the suspect was unarmed and was of small build, meaning he did not pose any serious threat to the police officer. The officer could tackle him instead of shooting him. The police officer’s defense was that he was well under his right to use the gun. The officer relied on the Tenn. Code Ann. [471 U.S. 1, 5]. This Tennessee statute allowed a police officer to use any required means to effect arrest on a fleeing suspect or a suspect who resists arrest as long as intention of arrest has been communicated. The Police Department also had a policy that allowed a police officer to use deadly force in the case of a burglary.
The issue presented in this case was whether law enforcers, that are police officers, are allowed to use deadly force to prevent an unarmed suspect from fleeing. The other issue to be determined was the constitutionality of the use of fatal force to stop a person suspected of felony from escaping. The District Court ruled for the defendants supporting the shooting of the suspect and asserting that there was no violation of the suspect’s constitutional rights. The plaintiff then appealed to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit overruled the decision of the District Court and held that the Tennessee statute was unconstitutional. The court ruled that arrest using deadly force was tantamount to seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled that even though burglary is a serious crime, the police officer was not justified in shooting the suspect who did not pose any serious threat as he was unarmed and of slight build. The Court of Appeal held that unless an officer had reasonable cause to believe that a suspect posed a serious threat, then such force was not to be used. The appellate Court reversed the decision of the District Court and held that the facts as presented in the court did not warrant the use of deadly force to prevent the suspect’s escape. The Court ruled that the Tennessee statute was unconstitutional and invalid to the extent that it allowed use of deadly force without limitation. The Police Department policy was also rendered invalid to the extent of the inconsistency with the Constitution.
The state then appealed against the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appellate Court. It ruled that the use of deadly force by police officers was only allowed if there was reasonable cause to believe a suspect posed serious danger or physical threat. Justice White stated that the use of deadly force on all suspected felons was unconstitutional and unreasonable. In giving rationale for its decision, the Supreme Court argued that force should only be used when a police officer has reasonable cause to believe that the suspect could seriously injure the officer or others. The statute that allowed for the use of deadly force did not delimit the use of this power by police officers. The Court argued that there should be a distinction between violent felons and property felons like Garner. Force should not be used regardless of the crime. It was also stated that any restraint of movement by an officer of the law is seizure. The Court reasoned that employment of deadly force discourages an individual and society in general from trusting the judicial system to determine guilt and punishment. The Court stated that the late arrival of a police officer at a crime scene does not validate killing of a suspected felon.
The Garner case established the general principle to be applied vis-à-vis the use of deadly force to effect apprehension of an escaping felon. The case also established that the Fourth Amendment standard of rationality was applicable in cases similar to it, as opposed to the rule of due process under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.