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An amount of force that is likely to cause either serious bodily injury or death to another person.
Police officers may use deadly force in specific circumstances when they are trying to enforce the law. Private citizens may use deadly force in certain circumstances in self-defense. The rules governing the use of deadly force for police officers are different from those for citizens.
During the twelfth century, the common law allowed the police to use deadly force if they needed it to capture a felony suspect, regardless of the circumstances. At that time, felonies were not as common as they are now and were usually punishable by death. Also, law officers had a more difficult time capturing suspects because they did not have the technology and weaponry that are present in today's world. In modern times, the courts have restricted the use of deadly force to certain, dangerous situations.
In police jargon, deadly force is also referred to as shoot to kill. The Supreme Court has ruled that, depending on the circumstances, if an offender resists arrest, police officers may use as much force as is reasonably required to overcome the resistance. Whether the force is reasonable is determined by the judgment of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than by hindsight. Because police officers can find themselves in dangerous or rapidly changing situations where split second decisions are necessary, the judgment of someone at the scene is vital when looking back at the actions of a police officer.
The Supreme Court has defined the "objective reasonableness" standard as a balance between the rights of the person being arrested and the government interests that allow the use
of force. The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, the category into which an arrest falls. The Supreme Court has said that a search and seizure is reasonable if it is based on probable cause and if it does not unreasonably intrude on the rights and privacy of the individual. This standard does not question a police officer's intent or motivation for using deadly force during an arrest; it only looks at the situation as it has happened.
For deadly force to be constitutional when an arrest is taking place, it must be the reasonable choice under all the circumstances at the time. Therefore, deadly force should be looked at as an option that is used when it is believed that no other action will succeed. The Model Penal Code, although not adopted in all states, restricts police action regarding deadly force. According to the code, officers should not use deadly force unless the action will not endanger innocent bystanders, the suspect used deadly force in committing the crime, or the officers believe a delay in arrest may result in injury or death to other people.
Circumstances that are taken into consideration are the severity of the offense, how much of a threat the suspect poses, and the suspect's attempts to resist or flee the police officer. When arresting someone for a misdemeanor, the police have the right to shoot the alleged offender only in self-defense. If an officer shoots a suspect accused of a misdemeanor for a reason other than self-defense, the officer can be held liable for criminal charges and damages for injuries to the suspect. This standard was demonstrated in the Iowa case of Klinkel v. Saddler, 211 Iowa 368, 233 N.W. 538 (1930), where a sheriff faced a wrongful death lawsuit because he had killed a misdemeanor suspect during an arrest. The sheriff said he had used deadly force to defend himself, and the court ruled in his favor.
When police officers are arresting someone for a felony, the courts have given them a little more leeway. The police may use all the force that is necessary to overcome resistance, even if that means killing the person they are trying to arrest. However, if it is proved that an officer used more force than was necessary, the officer can be held criminally and civilly liable. In Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 105 S. Ct. 1694, 85 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1985), the Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for police officers to use deadly force to stop fleeing felony suspects who are nonviolent and unarmed. The decision, with an opinion written by Justice Byron R. White, said, in part, "We conclude that such 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 serious physical injury to the officer or others."
When deadly force is used by a private citizen, the reasonableness rule does not apply. The citizen must be able to prove that a felony occurred or was being attempted, and that the felony threatened death or bodily harm. Mere suspicion of a felony is considered an insufficient ground for a private citizen to use deadly force.
This was demonstrated in the Michigan case of People v. Couch, 436 Mich. 414, 461 N.W.2d 683 (1990), where the defendant shot and killed a suspected felon who was fleeing the scene of the crime. The Michigan supreme court ruled that Archie L. Couch did not have the right to use deadly force against the suspected felon because the suspect did not pose a threat of injury or death to Couch.
Griffin, Thomas J. 1971. "Private Person's Authority, in Making Arrest for Felony, to Shoot or Kill Alleged Felon." American Law Reports 3d 32:1078.
Hatch, David E. 2003. Officer-Involved Shootings and Use of Force: Practical Investigative Techniques. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.
McGuinness, J. Michael. 2000. "Shootings by Police Officers Are Analyzed Under Standards Based on Objective Reasonableness." New York State Bar Association Journal 72 (September): 17.
Owens, Michael Douglas. 2001. "The Inherent Constitutionality of the Police Use of Deadly Force to Stop Dangerous Pursuits." Mercer Law Review 52 (summer): 1599– 1643.
Pearson, James O., Jr. 1978. "Modern Status: Right of Peace Officer to Use Deadly Force in Attempting to Arrest Fleeing Felon." American Law Reports 3d 83:174.
——. 1978. "Peace Officer's Civil Liability for Death or Personal Injuries Caused by Intentional Force in Arresting Misdemeanant." American Law Reports 3d 83:238.
Sullivan, G. Russell. 1985. "Constitutional Law—Deadly Force and the Fourth Amendment: Tennessee v. Garner." Suffolk Univ. Law Review 20.