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August 18, 2016

When Is a Police Officer Allowed to Use Deadly Force?

sign illustrating the fine line between police brutality and reasonable deadly force

There’s no escaping the controversy around police officers using deadly force. Some argue they shoot too soon while others contend that the actions are justified. Many individuals just really don’t know what to expect from law enforcement and treat officers with a high level of suspicion.

Related: Can a Police Officer Search My Car Without Probable Cause?

Regardless of where you stand on the issues, it’s important to know what the law says, both to help you understand the controversy and to protect your rights if an unfortunate circumstance arises. While policy varies between agencies, federal law is clear and consistent. Here’s the breakdown on modern deadly force laws.

Immediate Danger

The is the primary and universal justification for deadly actions. While the police have always been protected by the same self-defense statutes as civilians, the Supreme Court case of Tennessee v. Garner in 1985 settled the issue. A member of a police force is fully protected when they use deadly force in response to direct danger. Whether the immediate danger is to the officer themselves or other people in the vicinity, they can respond by taking a life. This is about as far as things stay simple. The rest of the rulings convolute the issue just as much as you might expect.

Fleeing Suspect

Before the Tennessee v. Garner case, officers were authorized to shoot and/or kill suspects who fled arrest. Up until then, they were protected by the Fleeing Felon Rule, which, as it sounds, enabled them to respond to anyone fleeing a felony level charge. This meant that deadly actions were not okay in response to a misdemeanor, but the Supreme Court ruling further limited what responses were appropriate. Today, an officer may not threaten the life of a fleeing suspect unless that suspect represents a clear danger to others.

One of the most confusing applications of this ruling involves vehicles. Generally speaking, most measures a police force can use to stop someone fleeing in a car are considered deadly because the risk of extreme injury or death are so high. That said, if they can justify that the driver being chased is endangering others on the road, the law gives them clearance to use those extreme measures.

Related: Can I Refuse a Breathalyzer?

Applying Deadly Force Laws

Things may not seem quite as confusing as they really are. The major issue that comes into any investigation is perspective. Who gets to determine if people were endangered enough to justify a killing? Once again, a Supreme Court ruling set the standard with Graham v. Connor in 1989. The ruling states that law enforcers are not subject to hindsight judgments. Instead, “objective reasonableness” is applied. Confused yet? Basically it works like this: investigators try to imagine a perfectly reasonable officer responding to the situation that occurred. If such an ideal person would have used force, then no foul was committed. Trends and precedent mostly protect police officers, sympathizing with the fact that they have to make split-second decisions and often with too little reliable information.

While convictions for police officers who use deadly force feel rare, there are plenty of legal ways to pursue justice. If you or someone you love has suffered wrongful treatment, then you need to discuss your case with a lawyer. In Henderson, the John F. Marchiano Law Corporation has every resource you could need to take wrongdoers to court. Make an appointment to discuss your case.