The question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. 

Graham v. Connor

490 U.S. 386 (1989)

U.S. Supreme Court

May 15, 1989

Robbery, Theft or … Nothing?

On Monday November 12, 1984 Charlotte Police Officer M.S. Connor was on patrol when he observed a vehicle abruptly stop at a Pilot Gas station located at 2724 West Boulevard, Charlotte, North Carolina and the passenger quickly exited, ran inside, remained a short time, ran back out and into the car.  The driver later identified as Mr. William Berry briskly drove out of the parking lot and sped away.

The Pilot Station, 2724 West Boulevard, Charlotte, North Carolina.  I took this photo in 2006 while visiting the location where law enforcement use of force legal evaluation began. Some time after 1984, the Pilot Corporation moved out of this location.  Mr. Graham ran in and out of this location prior to being stopped by Officer Connor.

Investigative Stop

Officer Connor suspecting a robbery or theft just occurred followed the car, requested back up and called for cars to check on the Pilot Gas station.  Officer Connor followed Mr. Berry and his passenger, Mr. Dethorne Graham for one half mile to the entrance of the Little Rock Apartments; 5700 Leake Street, Charlotte, North Carolina.

The one half mile route Mr. Berry drove away from the Pilot station.  Officer Connor stopped the vehicle at the entrance of the Little Rock Apartments.

Suspicious Behavior and a Violent Apprehension

As Mr. Berry stopped, Mr. Graham bailed out of the car and began to run in circles around Mr. Berry’s car.  Officer Connor believed he was being tricked; Mr. Berry exited the car too but ran one way around the car and Officer Connor ran the other.  Mr. Graham suddenly sat down on the curb and Mr. Berry explained that Mr. Graham had ‘sugar’ [diabetes].  Officer Connor did not believe Mr. Berry so he began to handcuff Mr. Graham until he and the other officers could determine what occurred at the Pilot gas station.   With additional officers now at scene a moderately violent struggle occurred, during which Officer Connor used profanity during the handcuffing.

Mr. Berry’s vehicle was stopped by Officer Connor at this location on West Boulevard.  In 2006 the apartments were called the Little Rock Apartments.

A Failed Orange Juice Purchase and a Ride Home

Responding officers checked on the Pilot gas station and determined there was no robbery or theft.  Mr. Berry explained that Mr. Graham ran in to the Pilot station to get some orange juice but ran out because the line was too long.  Officer Connor took Mr. Graham to his home, un-handcuffed him and dropped him off in his front yard.  Mr. Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, injured shoulder and loud ringing in his right ear.  He filed a civil suit against PO Connor and the City of Charlotte.  The Federal District Court found in favor of the City of Charlotte and Officer Connor applying the ‘Glick Test’ found in Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028 (1973).  The Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court and Mr. Graham appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Police Memorial Day 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court carved out a new three-part test for all law enforcement force to be evaluated:

  1. What was the severity of the crime?
  2. What was the apparent threat posed by the suspect?
  3. Was the suspect trying to flee or resist?

Id at 396

Holding

The question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. 

Lessons Learned:

  1. All law enforcement force will be adjudicated based on these three factors. What is interesting is that the U.S. Supreme Court did not anticipate modern day violence as the third prong likely does not comport with a homicide bomber, as the bomber is not trying to flee or resist.  However, I do believe that the Graham test will be applied for force used against a homicide bomber.
  2. The court also stated in pertinent part “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged by from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Id at 396. This very point was underscored In the 6th Circuit Court deadly force case, Smith v. Freland, 954 F.2d 343 (1992), Judge Danny Boggs writing for a unanimous court stated in pertinent part “We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day. What constitutes “reasonable” action may seem quite different to someone facing a possible assailant than to someone analyzing the question at leisure.” Id at 347  Of course many who take to the court of public opinion and social media omit this most important statement from their own myopic analysis of law enforcement force.

Postscript

The U.S. Supreme Court released this case on May 15, 1989.  Police Memorial Day, the one-day each year dedicated to fallen officers is every May 15th.  This was not coincidental.  I will forever be appreciative to the court for this honorable gesture.

National Law Enforcement Memorial, Washington D.C. Pictures are courtesy of Bill Swank.

Does your agency train on both the legal and physical requirements for constitutional use of force?

Don’t fail your training – don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.