TENNESSEE v. GARNER

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
83-1035
Petitioner 
Cleamtee Garner
Respondent 
State of Tennessee, et al.
Consolidation 
No. 83-1070
Opinion 
Advocates
(on behalf of appellants in 83-1035)
(on behalf of petitioners in 83-1070)
(on behalf of appellees in 83-1035 and respondents in 83-1070)
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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.

Question 

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

Conclusion 
Decision: 6 votes for Garner, 3 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 4: Fourth Amendment

Yes. In a 6-3 decision, Justice Byron R. White wrote for the majority affirming the court of appeals decision. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of deadly force unless it is necessary to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of violence to the officer or the community. The Tennessee statute was unconstitutional as far as it allowed deadly force to prevent the escape of an unarmed fleeing felon.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a dissent stating that the majority went too far in invalidating long-standing common law and police practices contrary to the holding. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist joined in the dissent.

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TENNESSEE v. GARNER. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 18 December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1984/1984_83_1035>.
TENNESSEE v. GARNER, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1984/1984_83_1035 (last visited December 18, 2014).
"TENNESSEE v. GARNER," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1984/1984_83_1035.