Skip to main content

Tennessee v. Garner

The Shaping of Modern Day 4th Amendment Rights

What citizen is able to defend himself in court if they are shot dead by a law enforcement officer even before apprehension? The case of Tennessee v. Garner 471 U.S. 1 (1985) is an extremely important case in our nation’s criminal justice history. This case establishes a modern day guideline for how a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights and a law enforcement officer’s pursuit of a suspect may legally intersect. By interpreting the word seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights to include the seizing of the suspect’s life, Tennessee v. Garner established that the use of deadly force may only be applied by law enforcement in instances where the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect to be a danger to either the public or the officer.

The 1985 case came about from a lawsuit the suspect’s father, Gregory Brown, brought against the city, police department and Mayor of Memphis in the shooting death of his fifteen year old son, Edward Garner. On October 3, 1974 suspecting Edward Garner of burglary Memphis Police Officer Hymon had shone his flashlight on the suspect and told him to halt. When the suspect began to climb a six foot chain link fence to escape arrest Officer Hymon shot Edward Garner with a 38 caliber hollow point bullet in the back of the head out of fear of losing the suspect. Officer Hymon had followed his police department’s policy as well as a Tennessee state statute authorizing the use of deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect. The statute originated from a common law which allowed for any means necessary to be used to stop a fleeing suspect. United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee found the Tennessee statute and Officer Hymon’s actions to be constitutional. The case was appealed and the United States Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner 471 U.S. 1 (1985) that under the Fourth Amendment a Police Officer could not legally seize, take, a potential suspect’s life through the use of deadly force unless circumstances warranted it. It was deemed that only if the officer had probable cause to believe the suspect had committed a violent crime, was a danger to the community, or a threat to the officer would the officer have the authority to utilize deadly force to stop the suspect. The United States Supreme Court further decided that the Tennessee statute was invalid in regards to giving Officer Hymon authorization to use deadly force in the instance of Edward Garner. The United States Supreme Court stated that the Tennessee statute originated from a time when many more crimes were punishable by death than are in present times, thus it could no longer be interpreted literally in light of changes to the criminal justice system. Due Process for all citizens is protected by the precedence set in this case; stating firmly, as it does, that only in instances where an officer has probable cause to believe a violent crime has occurred or has the potential to occur may said law enforcement officers use deadly force to deter, or prevent it while apprehending suspects. As stated under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights each and every American has protection from unjust seizure.

The case of Tennessee v. Garner is a landmark case because it clarifies and modernizes our rights under the fourth amendment. This case leaves behind the common law of two hundred years before, replacing it with a ruling which upholds our rights as citizens of the United States. Without this ruling being as it was it would be quite likely that anyone running from a law enforcement officer, for what ever reason, would be in danger of having their life taken to ensure that a potential suspect was captured. It is important for all of us to remember, a suspect is simply that: somebody who might be guilty. Everyone should be able to have the opportunity to have their day in court; to live to be able to prove either their innocence or guilt.

© 2009 D A Moore


D A Moore (author) from Colorado on January 16, 2015:

If you think about it, the choice was in the hands of the officer

By some individual's logic, we could reasonably state that the kid was shot because he woke up that morning; the officer was the one who made the decision to fire, taking a life without giving a citizen the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. In this circumstance it was tantamount to a judge sentencing someone to the electric chair for a minor infraction.

This was a landmark case because it reversed previous case law; justifiably so.

Law on March 01, 2013:

This isn't the movies , you can't just shoot someone's ear off.. The cop followed procedure it was an extreme procedure hence why it's a precedent case. The boy was not a threat to anyone but how can you determine that in a few seconds well if he had a gun or a hostage, he had neither of those infact he had a women's purse with a few dollars. Sucks he lost his life over a few dollars but that was in fact his choice, he broke into the house where he could have been shot. He knew what he was getting into. If it was my house an someone was stealing from me I doubt they would make it out the door. I feel like breaking into someone's house is enough to get shot over you can't see what the criminal is thinking is he going to hurt me, steal from me, rape someone in my family what are his intentions ? And the more the kid gets away with the crime the more he is going to up the risk.

tabik on August 12, 2012:

People have bad experiences with cops all the time so even if they were/are innocent they will have the feeling that they need to run from them. Also, it doesn't say that Garner actually commited the burgarly just that he was a suspect so the cop had no right to shoot him in the back of the head. I probably would do the same thing as Garner and climb a fence if it came to it.

Derrick on May 03, 2012:

Y would u shoot a person in the back of the head . Keep in mind he didn't if that person had a gun or not ? I think policemen r very trigger happy and lazy

D A Moore (author) from Colorado on January 05, 2012:

Art, thank you for your response. I intended the word funny to be synonymous with 'curious', not strange. Any other opinions are those of the readers and as valid as they wish them to be.

Art on November 27, 2011:

Dyonder not really funny if by "funny" you mean strange..if you read Justice O'connor's dissenting opinion which was joined by two other SC justices, it kind of parallels the comments by some of your readers. Also the readers should keep in mind that the "lazy" cop was following his State's law and his Department's Use of Force guidelines at the time of the shooting.

D A Moore (author) from Colorado on November 09, 2011:

It is funny how everyone has such a different opinion on a LANDMARK case which influenced OUR legal rights

a on October 28, 2011:

don't break into someones house n rob them n you wont be shot seems right

barney on October 12, 2011:

Fred you obviously have no idea what you are talking about. The kid commited a felony. the officer did what he belived at the time, had to be done to protect society. The officer took the exact actions that any true officer should do.

fred flinstone on October 12, 2011:

say what you want but shooting the kid was a bit extreem.He was obviously lazy and had extreemely poor jugement. a person like that doesn't even deserve to be a police officer

David Scott on September 03, 2011:

Plice aren't trained to shot out someone's leg. They are trained to stop the threat. While the incident is unfortunate unless you have read the entire case file about what happened what gives you to make the judgement on this officer. You say the officer took the easy way out, having to pull the trigger of that gun with the possiblilty of ending someones life is never easy. Think about that next time you think a cop is lazy. Take for instance today a Sargent in Memphis was shot making a car stop. Don't judge till you have walked in their shoes.

Gabrielle Chalise on August 22, 2011:

@Tammy, you have to be freaking kidding me. Innocent or Guilty, he didn't pose any type of violent threat to anyone so therefore he shouldn't have been shot in the head and killed. There are other measures that could have been taken. That lazy cop didn't want to run after him so he took the easiest way out. It stated nowhere that the cop tried to run after him. Even still, if he had no other choice but to shoot, he should have shot him in the leg or something to stop him and get him down. Burglary does not cause for a SUSPECT'S death.

D A Moore (author) from Colorado on August 14, 2011:

? Ok

Tammy George on July 04, 2011:

This decision is bogus; if you are innocent then you should not be running anywhere when a police officer identifies him/herslef and tells you to "halt"! it very plan an simple. It is unfortunate that it was a) a juvenile, b) he made the decisions that he did, c) the juvenile took his chances of being able to prove his innocence when he didn't obey the commands given to him. these are just a few of the consequences suffered by young people.

Related Articles