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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.