In the past few blog posts, we’ve started talking about what it means to be “seized” by police. Determining the precise moment when a seizure occurred is crucial because, if the seizure was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment, evidence obtained after it happened can be excluded from trial under the exclusionary rule.
As we’ve stressed in these earlier posts, there are many situations where it’s unclear if a seizure occurred, or exactly when it occurred. The new Maine Supreme Court case Maine v. Blier is a prime example, as we discussed in this earlier post.
However, not all seizures are complex. There are some police apprehensions that are quite clearly seizures under the Fourth Amendment. For example, if that apprehension involves deadly force, courts are in general agreement that it is a seizure. However, depending on the facts of the case, it can still be deemed a “reasonable” seizure that does not violate the Fourth Amendment and trigger the exclusionary rule.
It might seem painfully obvious, but the Supreme Court of the United States found it necessary, in Tennessee v. Garner, to point out that fatally shooting someone constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In Garner, police were called to the scene of a burglary to find the suspect trying to scale a fence to escape. Despite his belief that the suspect was unarmed, one of the officers drew his gun and fatally shot the suspect to prevent him from getting away. The Supreme Court determined that this use of deadly force did, in fact, constitute a seizure.
Likewise, in Scott v. Harris, the Supreme Court determined that a seizure happened when a police officer deliberately caused the fleeing vehicle in a car chase to crash, causing serious injuries to the fleeing driver.
However, even in the situations presented by Garner and Scott, there are complications: The Court decided that the seizure in Garner was unreasonable, while the seizure in Scott was reasonable. This means that the police broke the law – the Fourth Amendment – by fatally shooting the burglary suspect, but did not break the law when they crashed the fleeing car and rendering the driver a quadriplegic.
The linchpin between the two cases was that, taking into account the risks that the fleeing vehicle in Scott would hurt or kill innocent people, the police use of deadly force suddenly became acceptable in the eyes of the Court.
In short, when police use deadly force, it’s a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. However, as we can see from the different outcomes in Garner and Scott, determining that there was a seizure only raises an additional question: Was that seizure unreasonable? Your Fourth Amendment rights only get triggered if it was unreasonable, which is why the Supreme Court decided that the police in Garner violated the rights of the fleeing burglar, but did not violate the rights of the fleeing driver in Scott.
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