Can police use deadly force on a fleeing suspect?
When Officer Michael Slager, of the North Charleston Police Department, shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed suspect following a traffic stop for a brake light violation, the story followed a typical path for the first couple of days (Officer was in fear of his life). Then a bystanders video of the incident surfaced. Now there’s a renewed national debate about the excessive use of force by police and in particular can police use deadly force on a fleeing suspect.
Can police shoot a fleeing suspect?
In a very limited set of circumstances the answer is YES. The key word in that statement is limited. This is one of the most hotly debated issues of our modern era when it comes to law enforcement and the amount of force they use and when they choose to execute it. So what is the legal standard that police rely on when shooting and killing an unarmed fleeing suspect?
In Tennessee v. Garner, the court said this case requires us to determine the constitutionality of the use of deadly force to prevent the escape of an apparently unarmed suspected felon.
We conclude that such force may not be used unless it is 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.
The legal standard for police use of force
The authority for police to use force comes from our U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor, which held that all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force — deadly or not — in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its “reasonableness” standard. So to determine whether lethal force was reasonable under the circumstances, reasonableness is viewed in the eyes of a reasonable police officer.
This is not a knock on police officers but rather just another quirk in our law that defines an imaginary person for all of us to make a legal determination on. Civil courts use a similar standard when determining the negligence of a person, which, is based on what would a “reasonable person” do. If you were to ask anyone what does that actually mean I’m sure you would get a shrug of the shoulders, “I don’t know.”
Why is this a problem?
What this does is train our police force that when using deadly force you need to have a legal “reasonable basis” for killing another person, not whether you should find another way to resolve the situation. That is why you see so many times that the standard language police use is that they were in fear of their life, therefore the killing was justifiable, not whether should it have occurred in the first place.
What has been highlighted by video in recent months is the killing of unarmed men by police when there certainly looked like there were other alternatives to resolve the situation. I am not talking about police chasing a armed bank robber, someone who has just murdered someone with a weapon, and all the other scenario’s that proponents of law enforcement use to support their argument. The most problematic issues are unarmed men. Before the videos go public the officers typically and from a legal point perspective foolishly give statements that they were in fear of their lives and acted accordingly.
This is not how the average citizen would view killing another person I think most of us would look to any and all other alternatives if possible rather than taking another persons life.
Charleston Criminal Defense Lawyer
Dale Savage is an experienced and trusted criminal defense lawyer Charleston, SC at the Dale Savage Law Firm, call today for a free case consultation (843) 530-7813.