Thursday, September 17, 1998

US Supreme Court Graham v. Connor 87-6571

Decided May 15, 1989

   This is really an interesting case, and every cop should read it.  Preferably after they've been a cop for a while, and have enough experience to put what they are reading in that context.

   We've all heard the story... Graham was a diabetic who had a friend drive him to a convenience store so he could buy orange juice to stave off an insulin reaction.  He ran into the store, saw that there was a long line, and ran back out to be driven to a friend's house instead.  Connor (a cop) saw this, thought this was suspicious, and detained Graham & his friend about a half mile away.  Graham's friend tried to explain the problem, but Connor was having none of it and continued the detention while calling for backup and also having another officer go to the convenience store to see if anything had happened there.

   Graham freaked out, got out of the car and ran around, then briefly passed out on the curb.  More officers showed up, and Graham got his ass kicked (on the order of broken bones).  Graham's friend tried in vain to explain the issue, which pretty much just got him bitched out in the midst of Graham's ass kicking.  Then the officer at the convenience store reported that nothing had happened there.

   Oops.  Graham was released without charges at his house.

   Unsurprisingly, Graham sued.  The district court dismissed the lawsuit by applying a legal standard that is no longer relevant because of this case.  Graham appealed, all the way to the Supreme Court.

   When I read this decision, I was surprised to learn that the court didn't decide whether or not the use of force in this case was justified.  All the court did was clarify the legal standard that the police were to be held to, and then remand the case back to the lower court for a decision consistent with that standard.  I wonder how it went?  If this case were to happen today, I'm sure that Graham would be getting a big check.  But that's really neither here nor there.  The important thing is that the court made explicit that all cases involving police use of force were to be judged against the Fourth Amendment standard of reasonableness.  But there's a couple of paragraphs towards the end of the decision that were important enough that I didn't want to paraphrase them and miss something.

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
Fourth Amendment is not violated by an arrest based on probable cause, even though
the wrong person is arrested, nor by the mistaken execution of a valid search warrant
on the wrong premises. With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of
reasonableness at the moment applies: "Not every push or shove, even if it may later
seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers," violates the Fourth Amendment.
The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers
are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense,
uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular

As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the "reasonableness" inquiry in an
excessive force case is an objective one: 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 (in analyzing the reasonableness of a particular
search or seizure, "it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard"). An
officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively
reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable
use of force constitutional.

   Okay, so every cop who's been on the job for five minutes probably has some understanding of the first of those two paragraphs, and that's good, but I think very few of us really get the second one.  The "objective" prong of "objective reasonableness" is almost entirely lost on us.  Which is a shame.  The ones who get it are much more concerned about doing things the right way, and they scare me a lot less.