By Gary Minor, Criminal Justice faculty at American Military University
In the last few months, the news has been filled with stories about police officers shooting and killing unarmed fleeing criminals. Is it legal for officers to take such action? Under what circumstances can officers use deadly force on a fleeing suspect?
Let us evaluate one of the most recent cases making headlines. On April 4, a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., shot and killed an unarmed male. The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he feared for his life because the man took his stun gun in a scuffle during the traffic stop. Video taken by a bystander shows the officer firing eight times as the man fled. In addition, the video shows an object falling to the ground just before the shooting. After the shooting, officer Slager went back to where the object fell and proceeded to drop the object near the victim’s body. Most speculate it was the Taser.
Was this officer’s action constitutional?
The Legal Rights of Officers to Use Lethal Force
Such actions are governed under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Let’s review the precedent-setting case of Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985).
In the Garner case, police were called to intercept a burglary in progress. When they arrived, the suspect was seen fleeing the scene. An officer ordered the man to stop, but the suspect continued fleeing, attempted to leap over a fence, and was shot and killed by an officer. The shooting police officer admitted he did not see a weapon. The district court held that the officer’s acts were constitutional; however, the court of appeals later reversed the decision.
The officer does have the authority to shoot at a fleeing suspect when the officer reasonably believes that the escapee poses a threat to the safety of others. An officer with probable cause has the authorization to seize a suspect, but he may not always do so by killing or using lethal force.
The United States Supreme Court made it clear in the Garner case, stating that:
“The 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 that 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. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing suspects.”
Clearly, the shooting in South Carolina does not comport with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures. The victim posed no threat to the officer during the confrontation. Secondly, the victim was 20 feet away, running from the officer when he was shot in the back. Officer Slager has been charged with murder in this incident and has been fired from his position.
Unfortunately, cases of officers using deadly force in questionable circumstances continue to plague law enforcement. It is important that agencies educate and inform officers about their legal rights to use deadly force.
About the Author: Gary Minor completed his bachelor’s degree in Police Science and Administration with a minor in pre-law from Washington State University and his MBA in Information Systems at City University in Washington. After completing his MBA, he attended Seattle University School of Law and obtained his Juris Doctorate of law. He also obtained his police executive certification, a requirement to be a police chief executive of a law enforcement agency in Washington. His academic interests include police executive management, law and justice, juvenile justice and ethics in law enforcement. Professor Minor has significant executive experience, having served as a Chief of Police, President of the Snohomish County Police and Sheriff’s association and the South Snohomish County Police Advisory committee. He also served two terms as the Chairman of the Board for Emergency Services Coordinating Agency (ESCA), a FEMA affiliate.