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Court Limits Rights of Police to Shoot Unarmed Suspects

March 27, 1985 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Police may not shoot unarmed, fleeing criminal suspects who pose no apparent threat to the officers or the public, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

By a 6-3 vote, the court said a Tennessee law that allowed unrestrained use of deadly force violated the constitutional rights of suspects.

″It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape,″ said Justice Byron R. White for the court.

Tennessee’s ″fleeing felon″ law was similar to those in nearly half the states. But in many of those states, local police departments for years have banned shooting of fleeing suspects who are not considered dangerous.


Wednesday’s ruling means the city of Memphis may be forced to pay the father of a 15-year-old suspected burglar killed by police 11 years ago.

Tennessee State Rep. Joe Kent, a Memphis police lieutenant, said it is ″a black day for law enforcement.″

But Robert Angrisani, a spokesman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, called the decision ″just and proper.″

Angrisani said from the association’s offices in Gaithersburg, Md., that the organization’s law enforcement guidelines are almost identical to the court’s ruling.

″We agree with today’s decision,″ he said.

In other decisions, the court:

-Ruled by a 4-4 vote that Scarsdale, N.Y., must permit the placing of a Nativity scene in a village park as long as non-religious displays are allowed there.

Such tie votes do not set any national precedent because it is possible in some future case the same issue will be decided by all nine justices.

-Made it easier for local governments nationwide to fend off lawsuits that charge them with violating federal antitrust laws.

The ruling is likely to protect numerous communities that run sewer systems, cable television, hospitals and mass transit as monopolies.

In the fleeing suspect case, the court rejected arguments by Tennessee law enforcement officials that police will be hampered unnecessarily if they are forced to make split-second decisions on when it is permissible to shoot an escaping suspect.

In his opinion for the court, White said, ″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.″


He said states may still authorize police to shoot to kill ″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.″

In such cases, the officer should give a warning before firing, White added.

The ruling suggests that someone known to have committed a violent crime in the past may be considered dangerous even though he may be fleeing from a non- violent crime such as a burglary.

The ruling stems from a burglary case but appears to apply equally, for example, to fleeing unarmed store looters.

In the case that led to the decision, Memphis policeman Elton Hymon and his partner were investigating a reported burglary on the night of Oct. 3, 1974, when Hymon spotted Edward Garner, 15, running from a house.

Hymon, who said the boy appeared unarmed, shouted ″police, halt.″ As the boy jumped to the top of a fence, Hymon fired a fatal shot that struck young Garner in the back of the head.

Hymon said he fired to prevent the boy from escaping.

The boy’s father, Cleamtee Garner, sued Memphis officials and Hymon in 1975, charging that his son’s civil rights were violated.

In 1983, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court and revived the suit. It said Tennessee’s law on deadly force was unconstitutional.

In upholding that ruling, the Supreme Court opened the way for Garner’s suit against the city of Memphis and its police department.

The Tennessee law said, ″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.″

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the decision creates a constitutional right that will allow burglary suspects ″to flee unimpeded from a police officer ... who has no means short of firing his weapon to prevent escape.″

She was joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist.