WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, striking down laws in 21 states that give police wide discretion to shoot fleeing suspects, ruled Wednesday that an officer may not use deadly force to stop burglars or other unarmed suspects unless they pose a serious danger to authorities or others.
By a vote of 6 to 3, a sharply divided court held unconstitutional the provisions of a Tennessee law authorizing police to use "all necessary means" to apprehend escaping suspects.
"Where a suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so," Justice Byron R. White wrote for the court.
The justices cited a slowly growing trend away from the centuries-old common law rule allowing policemen to pursue and, if necessary, kill all fleeing suspects as a last resort. Now, they noted, most of the nation's police departments and several states bar deadly force unless the suspect has committed or threatens to commit a serious violent crime. In California, court rulings have prohibited deadly force.
The court denied that its ruling would hamper law enforcement, saying there is no evidence of an increase in crime in jurisdictions that already limit deadly force.
But, in an outspoken dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice William H. Rehnquist, said that the court majority was disregarding the dangers involved in residential break-ins--and effectively creating a "constitutional right" for burglary suspects to flee from the scene of the crime.
2.8 Million Rapes
O'Connor noted a study showing that, over a recent 10-year period, about 2.8 million rapes, assaults and other violent crimes were committed during home burglaries in the United States.
"Because burglary is a serious and dangerous felony, the public interest in the prevention and detection of the crime is of compelling importance," O'Connor said. The use of deadly force as a last resort to stop a suspect in a nighttime burglary is not unreasonable under the Constitution, she concluded.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department said that the ruling will have no impact on the department. "It's really no big deal," officer Margie Mastro said. "What the Supreme Court said falls right in line with our policy."
The case before the court (Tennessee vs. Garner, 83-1035) involved the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Edward Eugene Garner, an unarmed eighth-grader who ignored a policeman's command to halt at the scene of a nighttime burglary in Memphis in 1974.
The youth was shot in the head as he ran and jumped to the top of a six-foot-high chain-link fence in back of the home. The officer who fired the shot said later that he was "reasonably sure" the boy was unarmed--but that he also thought he would not be able to scale the fence and then catch the suspect.
Garner's father brought a civil rights suit seeking damages, asserting violations of his son's constitutional rights. City officials and police defended the shooting as justifiable under the circumstances, citing the Tennessee law.
A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled the law unconstitutional--and the justices agreed Wednesday insofar as it authorized the use of deadly force against unarmed and non-dangerous fleeing suspects like Garner.
The court said deadly force would be warranted only if officers had "probable cause" to believe a suspect posed a "significant threat of death or serious physical injury to officers or others."
The court noted that there have been sweeping changes in both law and technology that have rendered the old rule governing lethal force obsolete. The old rule arose in England at a time when virtually all felonies were punishable by death. Now, only murder is punishable by death in this country, the court observed, and sophisticated police techniques have made it easier to catch escapees.
Moreover, the court noted that studies show that a substantial majority of the nation's law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have adopted much more restrictive policies than the old rule.
The court rejected the suggestion that its ruling would force police to make "impossible, split-second evaluations" about whether they could use their guns in confrontations with suspects.
"We do not deny the practical difficulties of attempting to assess the suspect's dangerousness," White wrote. But other similarly difficult judgments must be made by police officers in other uncertain circumstances when they confront suspects, he observed.
Nor is there any evidence that, in states with restrictions on officers, there has been a "rash of litigation" against officers who used their guns, he added.
As for the study showing 2.8 million violent crimes committed during break-ins over a 10-year period, the court majority noted that the figure represents only 3.8% of the total number of burglaries.
"The dissent (implies) that today's holding will let loose 2.8 million violent burglars," White wrote. ". . . At issue is only that tiny fraction of cases where violence has taken place and an officer who has no other means of apprehending the suspect is unaware of its occurrence."
In addition to Tennessee, White wrote, the states whose laws were invalidated are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.