Tennessee v. Garner

LOCATION: House where alleged robbery took place

DOCKET NO.: 83-1035
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 471 US 1 (1985)
ARGUED: Oct 30, 1984
DECIDED: Mar 27, 1985

Henry I. Klein - on behalf of petitioners in 83-1070
Henry L. Klein - for petitioners in No. 83-1070
Steven L. Winter - on behalf of appellees in 83-1035 and respondents in 83-1070
W. J. Michael Cody - on behalf of appellants in 83-1035
Wj Michael Cody - on behalf of appellants in 83-1035

Facts of the case

These are two consolidated cases against different defendants involving the same incident. During a chase, police officer Elton Hymon shot 15-year-old Edward Eugene Garner with a hollow tip bullet to prevent Garner from escaping over a fence. Garner was suspected of robbing a nearby house. Hymon admitted that before he shot he saw no evidence that Garner was armed and "figured" he was unarmed. The bullet hit Garner in the back of the head. Garner was taken to the hospital where he died a short time later.

Garner's father sued seeking damages for violations of Garner's constitutional rights. The district court entered judgment for the defendants because Tennessee law authorized Hymon's actions. The court also felt that Garner had assumed the risk of being shot by recklessly attempting to escape. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that killing a fleeing suspect is a "seizure" under the Fourth Amendment and such a seizure would only be reasonable if the suspect posed a threat to the safety of police officers or the community at large.


Does a statute authorizing use of deadly force to prevent the escape of any fleeing suspected felon violate the Fourth Amendment?

Media for Tennessee v. Garner

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 30, 1984 in Tennessee v. Garner

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Tennessee against Garner and the consolidated case.

Mr. Klein, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Henry I. Klein:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, there are two issues in this case.

The first deals with the constitutionality of a state statute with regard to the use by a police officer of all necessary means to effect an arrest.

The second is whether the municipality's use of deadly force to apprehend a fleeing burglary suspect after exhausting all other reasonable means is constitutionally permissible.

The reason the city asked for certiorari in this case is that it has a substantial public interest in being able to apprehend persons fleeing from serious crimes such as burglary in the first degree.

The facts in this case are such that they lend themselves to show that the officer involved had probable cause to believe that a felony had been committed.

On the evening of October 3rd, 1974, the police received a call to come to the scene of what was an apparent breaking and entering.

The police arrived on the scene.

They were advised by the next-door neighbor that

"They are breaking in next door. "

The officer then proceeds to survey the situation and then to move into the area where the reported burglary was taking place.

The officer goes down the side of the house, and as doing so, notices as he comes to the rear of the house that there was a window that had been broken, and a garbage can beneath the window, which appeared to him that someone had used the garbage can get up to the window, had broken the window, and then had gained admittance to the home.

This all took place at approximately 11:00 o'clock in the evening.

The officer then, as he reaches the back of the house, sees an individual exiting from the house and running toward the back of the yard.

There was a lot of clutter in the yard at the time.

There was a small mesh fence that was an obstacle to the police officer as he started to move into the back yard.

There was a chain link fence in the back of the yard which was approximately six feet tall.

The suspect, after exiting the back door, immediately proceeds to the fence, and then pauses at the fence in a stooped position.

The officer gives the command to halt, police.

At this point, the individual turns and looks in the direction of the police officer, and does remain in this stooped position momentarily, and then as the officer is about to make his advance forward to attempt to apprehend the individual, he then begins to jump and vault over the fence, at which time the officer fires, and unfortunately it results in the death of the suspect.

Now, these basically are the facts that are involved, and as I pointed out earlier, there can be little or any question that at the time the officer arrived on the scene, there was probable cause if not more to believe that a burglary in the first degree had been committed.

Burglary in the first degree under Tennessee law is the breaking and entering in a dwelling place in the nighttime with intent to commit a felony, and the Tennessee legislature has determined that burglary is a serious crime, which, if nothing more, is evidenced by the fact that it carries of not less than five, no more than 15 years.

The officer also made the judgment or determination, as he so testified, that he could not apprehend this individual by any other means.

Now, under Tennessee law, it is clear that an officer must use all means available to apprehend a fleeing felon, and he is only justified in using deadly force as a last resort.

This officer testified that because of the conditions out at the place, the fact that it was dark, he was unfamiliar with the neighborhood, and that beyond the fence there was growth... I think he described it Johnson grass... which was rather tall, that he knew that once the individual got beyond the fence, there was no chance for him to apprehend, and that's the reason that he used the deadly force to attempt to apprehend.

Now, in the court proceedings below, the District Court found in favor of all defendants.

Named in the original action was the City of Memphis, the individual officer who was on the scene, and two supervisory personnel.

The case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and was sent back because in the meantime this Court had decided the Manell case, and that the Court of Appeals decided that the case should be remanded in light of Manell to further consider whether there was any liability on the part of the city.

The judgment as to the individual defendants was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.