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What Does The Supreme Court Say About Police Killing Unarmed Civilians?

April V. Taylor

The fact that the overwhelming majority of police officers who kill unarmed, surrendered civilians are never convicted of any crime makes one wonder what the law says about whether or not this act is legal or not.  The recent killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has caused many across the country to focus on the issue of police killing and has revealed that incomplete data shows that a person of color is killed by the cops every 28 hours.  Many wonder what legal recourse American citizens have when police become judge, jury and executioner.  There is one Supreme Court case, highlighted by Shaun King, that specifically address the issue of police killing unarmed civilians.

The first case was argued and decided in 1985 and is the case of Tennessee v. Garner.  The background from the case involves an event that occurred in 1974 when Black eighth-grader Edward Eugene Garner stole a purse containing $10.  Officer Elton Hymon caught up to Garner when he reached a chain link fence and ordered him to stop.  Despite observing that Garner was unarmed, Hymon shot Garner in the back of the head as he attempted to climb the fence.  At the time of the incident, Tennessee, as well as 21 other states, had laws that ruled that officers were legally allowed to shoot a suspect who was fleeing in order to “effect an arrest.”  Edward Garner’s father, Cleamtee Garner sued the city of Memphis on the basis that his son’s rights were violated and that the use of deadly force by the officer was extreme and excessive.

As the case made its way through the court system, the 6th Circuit federal appeals court ruled in Garner’s favor stating that the law allowing police to use deadly force on a fleeing suspect should be struck down due to the fact that it violates the protection under the 4th Amendment against unreasonable seizures.  The case wound up before the Supreme Court because the city of Memphis appealed this ruling.  The Supreme Court upheld the 6th Circuit court’s ruling, stating, “The Court explained that shooting a fleeing felon dead is constitutionally unreasonable because “The intrusiveness of a seizure by means of deadly force is unmatched. The suspect’s fundamental interest in his own life need not be elaborated upon. The use of deadly force also frustrates the interest of the individual, and of society, in judicial determination of guilt and punishment. Against these interests are ranged governmental interests in effective law enforcement …. we are not convinced that the use of deadly force is a sufficiently productive means of accomplishing them to justify the killing of nonviolent suspects.”

The cases ruling has very specific implications on the case against Officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown six times resulting in his death.  According to the official narrative of events regarding Wilson stopping Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson, Wilson stopped the pair because they were jaywalking.  Despite police releasing evidence that Brown may have possibly been involved in a robbery, Wilson was unaware of this information when he stopped them.  Six eyewitnesses state that Brown both verbally and physically surrendered to Wilson prior to the two fatal shots to his head being fired.  Both of these circumstances specifically violate the Supreme Court’s ruling in Tennessee v. Garner.

It must be noted that Missouri Revised Statute 563.046.1, which specifically governs circumstances under which Missouri police officers can use force, has not been updated to reflect the Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner, and prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch has used this outdated statute to prevent police officers from being criminally charged for the deaths of unarmed civilians while in office.  While no one can be sure what will come of Darren Wilson being charged in the death of Michael Brown, what is clear is that the Supreme Court does not give officers a license to kill unarmed civilians at will, simply to keep them from avoiding arrest.

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