471 U.S. 1 (1985)

One-Sentence Takeaway: An officer cannot use deadly force to prevent the escape of a criminal suspect and use of such force is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

While responding to a “prowler inside call,” the officer observed the suspect climb attempting to escape by climbing over a wall.  The officer testified that he did not observe any weapons.  After the suspect did not stop in response to the officer’s instructions, the officer shot the suspect who late died from the gunshot wound.  Such deadly force was permitted under a Tennessee statute which provided that, after a police officer gave notice of an intent to arrest a criminal suspect, the suspect flees or forcibly resists, “the officer may use all the necessary means to effect the arrest.”

The issue presented to the U.S. Supreme Court was whether an officer can use deadly force to prevent escape of an unarmed felon.  The Court held that such force was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses threat to the officer or others.

The Court reasoned, “[t]he 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 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.”

However, “[w]here 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.  Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape and if, where feasible, some warning has been given.”

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