Police Use Of Deadly Force And Federal Civil Rights Law — When Have The Police Gone Too Far?

There recently has been an extensive amount of media coverage and opinions about the deadly shooting of a teenager by the Ames Police Department after a vehicle pursuit.  Some support the officer’s actions, others criticize him for various reasons.  I’m not offering opinions on whether the officer’s actions were justified.  Instead, I wanted to review the legal standards under federal civil rights laws that govern law enforcement use of deadly force.  These are the general rules that are used when law enforcement agencies are sued for personal injuries or wrongful death stemming from the use of deadly force.

Well, maybe one opinion first.  Commentators who criticize the officer’s actions frequently assert that the teenage suspect was unarmed.  That’s wrong.  The teenager was armed with a truck.  He had used that truck as a battering ram/weapon during the police pursuit that ended with his shooting death by police.  Now, whether or not he was trying to again use the truck as a weapon at the time the officer shot him is a subject for fair debate.  But let’s stop pretending that the suspect wasn’t armed.  I once had a police tactics/use of force expert point out in court that any of the tools, implements, and other objects found in a garage can be used as a weapon, including a can of beer.  So the concept of an “armed” suspect extends well beyond guns and knives and easily includes motor vehicles.

Moving on to the general law concerning deadly force, apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Amendment prohibits officers from using deadly force to make an arrest unless the individual poses a threat of serious physical harm.  When the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, deadly force is not justified.   Notwithstanding probable cause to seize or arrest a suspect, an officer may not always do so by killing the person.

All claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force, whether deadly or not, in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure are analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness standard.  The key question is whether officers’ actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.  Officers’ underlying intent or motivation in using force is not a factor in the objective reasonableness inquiry. 

The reasonableness of an officer’s use of force, including deadly force, is evaluated by looking at the totality of the circumstances.  Relevant circumstances include the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade by flight.  If the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, when feasible, some warning has been given.

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