The Fleeing Felon Rule: Tennessee v. Garner Revisited After SC Officer Shoots Walter Scott

Michael Slager, a South Carolina officer has been charged with murder after a video went viral that appeared to show him shooting an unarmed man who was running away. A man, identified as 50-year-old Walter Scott, broke away from the officer. At that point, something fell, Mr. Scott ran away and the officer fired eight shots at him.

Discussions about whether Officer Slager’s actions were reasonable have surfaced throughout the United States. At common-law, the fleeing felon rule permitted the use of deadly force against a felon who was clearly in flight from apprehension. However, the legality of the fleeing felon rule was undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States in Tennessee v. Garner.

In Tennesse v. Garner, officer Elton Hymon responded to a nighttime residential burglary call. On arrival, the officer heard a door slam and saw an individual run across a backyard. When the officer directed his flashlight into the yard, he saw the suspect, Edward Garner, crouched near a chain link fence. The officer believed that the suspect was approximately seventeen or eighteen years old and unarmed. After the officer identified himself and called for Mr. Garner to halt, Mr. Garner leapt to clear the fence. Since the officer thought that Garner would otherwise escape, he shot and killed Mr. Garner.

The Court held that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of deadly force to apprehend a fleeing felon “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 serious physical injury to the officers or others.” Furthermore, the Court noted that Officer Hymon “could not reasonably have believed that Garner—young, slight, and unarmed—posed any threat.” Thus, the Court in Garner struck down the common-law rule, which allowed the use of deadly force whenever necessary to effectuate the arrest of a fleeing felon.

If this case goes to trial, the issue will be whether or not Officer Slager had probable cause to believe that Mr. Scott posed a significant threat of death or serious injury to him or others. Based on the preliminary facts of this case, it seems that since Mr. Scott was unarmed and ran away from Officer Slager, he posed no threat to the officer. Therefore, under the Garner Courts holding, Officer Slager’s actions seem to have been overwhelmingly and exceedingly unreasonable. Learn Your Rights 101.

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