When is deadly force legal?

Supreme Court cases outline reasonable force guidelines for police

A video that captured a South Florida police officer hitting a 14-year-old girl on Oct. 18 has gone viral, another example in a string of highly publicized cases alleging excessive — sometimes deadly — force that dates to the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old African-American, in Ferguson, Mo.

Each case brings its own facts and circumstances for law enforcement officials, judges and juries to consider. But for several decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent in the standards that officials and juries should weigh in deciding whether excessive police force is legal, and in deciding how to apply the Fourth Amendment, which protects persons from unreasonable searches and seizures.

A new American Bar Association Legal Fact Check explores how the U.S. Supreme Court has determined when such force, particularly deadly force, by police is permissible and when it is not.

In 1985 in Tennessee v. Garner, the court struck down a Tennessee statute that allowed a police officer to “use all the necessary means to effect the arrest” of an individual whom the officer suspected was fleeing or forcibly resisting detention but did not pose a danger. “The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable,” the 6-3 decision said.

Four years later, in Graham v. Connor, the court said deciding whether an officer used excessive force “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” The decision added that the “reasonableness of a particular use of force” should be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, with an allowance that police often must make split-second decisions.

Related links: