Constitutional Standards Under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the civil legal standard for the use of deadly force in Tennessee v. Garner, a case brought under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 involving an unarmed, non-dangerous fleeing suspect who was shot and killed by police. The court first held that “an apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.” The court went on to hold, “deadly 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 physical injury to the officer or others.”

In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court again addressed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil action brought against law enforcement officers to recover damages for injuries allegedly sustained when law enforcement officers used physical force against him during the course of an investigatory stop. The court held that all claims that law enforcement officials used excessive force — deadly or not — in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness“ standard. The question is whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to the officers underlying intent or motivations.

There are law enforcement associations recommending use of force best practices. There is are also concerns about calls to require law enforcement agencies to unilaterally, and perhaps haphazardly, establish use-of-force guidelines that exceed the “objectively reasonable” standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago (Graham v. Connor).





* March 2017, by Stephen Thayer on behalf of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. This document is provided as a summary overview. Contact your attorney for detailed guidance.  Also, refer to related documents on our website,