“How will I be judged by a court of law if someone sues me for using excessive force?” That is a fair question from a law enforcement officer. This chapter focuses on the legal aspects for using force in the course of effecting an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen.
The leading case on use of force is the 1989 Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor.1 The Court held, “…that all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force – deadly or not – in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its objective reasonableness standard…
A seizure occurs when a law enforcement officer terminates a free citizen’s movement by a means intentionally applied. Traffic stops, investigative detentions, and arrests are all Fourth Amendment seizures. To seize someone, an officer may yell “Stop!” The officer may use handcuffs, a baton, or firearm to make him stop. A seizure must be objectively reasonable – meaning reasonable in its inception, the degree of force used, and its duration. This chapter focuses on the degree of force an officer may use. The Fourth Amendment chapter discusses when, and for how long someone can be seized; but they all go to the overall question – was the seizure reasonable?
Mr. Graham was a diabetic. He felt the onset of an insulin reaction on day, called his friend Berry, and asked for a ride to a convenience store. Graham hoped to buy some orange juice. He thought that the sugar in the juice would counteract the reaction.
After the two men arrived at the store, Graham got out of the car and hastily went inside. Unfortunately, the check-out line was too long. Graham “hastily” returned to the car, got in, and told his friend to drive to another friend’s house. Maybe this friend would have some juice.
Officer Connor had watched Graham hastily enter and leave the store and suspected something was amiss. Connor activated his overhead lights and pulled them over. Berry tried to explain that his friend was just having a “sugar reaction” but Connor was not convinced. Connor told the two men to wait at their car while another officer returned to the store to determine what happened. Things got worse from that point. Graham got out of the car. He ran around the car two times, sat down on the curb, and momentarily passed out. Back-up officers arrived. According to Mr. Graham, he was violently placed into the backseat of a cruiser. All this time, Berry, and Graham after he regained consciousness, tried to explain that Graham was just having an insulin reaction. But their pleas had no effect. One officer commented that he thought Graham was drunk.
Connor finally received the report from the officer who returned to the store. Nothing was amiss. Graham sued the police officers. On appeal, the Supreme Court stated that the officers should be judged based on the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness test.
The Objective Test and the Reasonable Officer
The Court stated, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” The objective test requires the court to envision a reasonable officer and ask: Based on the totality of the facts and circumstances, could such an officer believe that the force was reasonable?
Since the objective test judges the officer through the lens of a reasonable officer, the subjective beliefs of the actual officer, whether they are good or bad, are not relevant. For instance, Officer Connor may have honestly believed that Graham was a shoplifter; however, the objective test asks what a reasonable officer could believe based on the facts. Facts make force reasonable. The objective test requires officers to rely on their senses (… or what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched) and then articulate a factual basis for what they did.
Was it reasonable to stop and use force on Mr. Graham? The Supreme Court said this was the relevant question. What follows are some facts and circumstances that could cause a court to find that the force was reasonable. Some of these facts are for illustrative purposes, only, and are not in the Graham decision.
For example, Officer Connor might write in his use of force report:
“I saw Mr. Graham run into the store. Less than 10-seconds later, I saw him run back out and get into Berry’s car. I heard the tires screech as the car drove away at a high rate of speed.”2
Based on those facts, what could a reasonable officer say? The Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio states that an officer may conduct an temporary investigative detention based on reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.3
An officer’s training and experience is also relevant. Connor might add:
“Based on what I saw, and my department having received no less than four complaints of shoplifting from this store within the past two weeks, I activated my overhead lights and stopped the car.”
Connor would be admitting to effecting a Fourth Amendment seizure; but a seizure is reasonable if he can point to specific, articulable facts indicating that criminal activity is afoot.
It should be obvious by now that the officer must help the court visualize what happened. Using good action verbs in a written report makes that visualization possible. Connor might write:
After Berry stopped, I walked to his car. I told both of the men to wait there. I ordered another officer to go back to the convenience store and find out what happened. Then Graham got out of the car. Graham opened the passenger door. He ran around the car two times, sat down on the curb, and fell over as if he had passed out.
Objective opinions or conclusions are appropriate; they are supported by facts. Connor might state:
I believed that Graham was under the influence of alcohol, based on my experience with intoxicated people. They are generally irrational. Graham was irrational; he ran around the car two times after I (a police officer) told him to wait at the car. Then he sat on the curb and fell over - as if he passed out.
Connor might add:
“Graham’s eyes were glassy. His speech was slurred. His breath smelled sweet, as it may after drinking alcoholic beverages.” Referring back to his training and experience, Connor could explain why intoxication is relevant. “I know that many assaults on police officers are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.”4
Good fact articulation helps the court make an objective decision. With facts, the court can visualize what happened. Facts “paint the picture.”
But the court cannot make an objective decision based on mere conclusions. If a statement makes someone ask “how?” or “why?” it is probably a mere conclusion. Note the differences:
These are facts: “I ordered the suspect to stay in the car. Instead, he got out.” The reader can visualize that.
- Now consider a mere conclusion: “He was non-compliant.” How?
With facts, the reader can visualize what happened. The mere conclusion makes the reader asked, “How?”
“Cop talk” creates the same confusion as a mere conclusion. “Fuzzy words” like “indicated, suggested, or implied” do the same thing. They make the reader ask how. How did he indicate? Note the differences:
- Facts: “I ordered the suspect to keep his hands on the steering wheel of the car. Instead, he reached under the seat with his right hand.
- Cop talk: “The suspect made a furtive movement.”
- Fuzzy word: “He indicated that he might be going for a gun.”
Officers may experience tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and memory loss in stressful situations where they have to use force. But they must paint the picture with the sights and sounds they remember. While it may be impossible to recall exactly what the suspect said, the officer may still remember “He screamed at me and clenched his fists, like a boxer.”
- Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989); See the Legal Division Reference Book.
- This is a hypothetical use of force report that is intended for instructional purposes only. It is not Officer Connor’s report.
- Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); See the Legal Division Reference Book.
- Darrell L. Ross, “Assessing Patterns of Citizen Resistance During Arrest,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 1999.