Court limits use of force in Tennessee v. Garner

June 14, 2013

Rumors that police shot Schueller in the back began to fly immediately after the shooting. Facebook murmurs gained more traction after Schueller's mother, Martha Owers, saw the wound herself on a prison visit. Word traveled as far as Wilmington where a prominent defense attorney said he heard police had shot a man in the back. When asked whether he could recall a similar shooting in Delaware, his answer was no.

The legality of shooting a fleeing suspect in the back was addressed in a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case. In Tennessee v. Garner, five justices ruled in favor of a Tennessee family who sued the state after police shot to death their unarmed son fleeing police after a burglary.

"Apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement," the syllabus of the 1985 decision states. "To determine whether such a seizure is reasonable, the extent of the intrusion on the suspect's rights under that amendment must be balanced against the governmental interests in effective law enforcement. This balancing process demonstrates that, notwithstanding probable cause to seize a suspect, an officer may not always do so by killing him. The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable."

The U.S. Supreme Court held the use of deadly force is unconstitutional against an apparently unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect. However, the court added "such force may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

Other than the shovel police say he was swinging, Schueller was unarmed. He had led police on a car chase and crashed into another vehicle, but no weapon, other than the shovel, has been reported.

Shavack would not say under what conditions an officer would shoot a fleeing suspect in the back because, he said, in this case, Schueller was not fleeing; he was swinging a shovel at police.


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