A police officer hears on his radio that a robbery is in progress. He rushes to the robbery scene where he sees a person escaping who fits the description of the robber. The suspected robber is unarmed; however, the officer shoots him in the back, killing him, to stop the escape.
This scenario raises the question of whether a police officer is justified in the use of deadly force to stop an unarmed suspected felon from escaping, which is the so-called fleeing felon rule. Folks are hotly debating this issue yet again because of the alleged murder of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Despite lots of misinformed punditry, the general rule is that police officers may not use deadly force to stop an unarmed fleeing suspected felon from escaping, without more. Again, that’s the general rule, but as is often the case in the law, there’s an exception. And that exception is so important that it’s best to read it straight from the US Supreme Court case that announced it. That case is Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985). Here’s the pertinent part of the case:
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. Tennessee v. Garner, 105 S.Ct. 1694.
To reiterate, police officers cannot use deadly force to prevent an unarmed fleeing suspected felon from escaping unless the police officer has probable cause to believe the unarmed fleeing felon poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. This ruling means a police officer cannot shoot shoplifters, or nonviolent felons to prevent an escape. Of course, change the facts a little, and the officer may be justified in using deadly force.
If you have more questions about this topic, feel free to call me at (214) 725-0254 or visit me online at the www.corbettfirm.com.