Due to many recent high-profile cases, police shootings in the United States have gained increasing attention. Several organizations have tried to estimate the annual number of police shootings and have each arrived at a figure of over 1,000. While prosecutions or lawsuits related to these shootings are still relatively rare, they are gradually increasing in number.
One case pending before the Supreme Court, City of Los Angeles v. Contreras, may help to explain the law applying to these cases. It arose out of the shooting of a suspect by two Los Angeles police officers in 2009. One of the key issues it will raise is whether the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure requires a suspect to threaten a police officer with a weapon before being shot.
The Facts of Contreras
Robert Contreras was inside a van that was involved in a drive-by shooting. The van evaded police, then stopped; Contreras and two other men got out and ran away on foot. Two officers chased Contreras and saw him pull an object out of his pocket which he then carried in his hand. The officers told Contreras to “drop the gun” and to “stop.” They fired one shot that missed Contreras; he kept running. The officers caught up to Contreras in a dark alley with a gate at the end. They each shot him twice in the back without additional warning. The entire chase lasted under a minute, and later examination revealed that the object Contreras was holding was a cell phone.
Contreras was not killed in the shooting, but suffered severe paralysis of his lower body and lost partial use of his hands and arms. He was sentenced to several years in prison for his role in the drive-by shooting, but was eventually released on parole. Contreras then sued the City of Los Angeles and the officers involved for use of excessive force and won. He was awarded $5.725 million dollars. Interestingly, according to the L.A. Times, the District Court Judge did not allow evidence that Contreras had been convicted of the drive-by shooting or that one of his accomplices claimed that he had a gun when he left the van. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Contreras’ victory; the City of Los Angeles and other defendants have now appealed to the Supreme Court.
Police Shootings and the Law
The Fourth Amendment guarantees protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Use of deadly force has always been considered the ultimate seizure of a suspect because deadly force is a total intrusion by the state. It is very important to balance the extreme nature of this intrusion against the importance (and reasonableness) of the governmental interest in such a seizure. As the Court in Tennessee v. Garner wrote, “it is not better that all felony suspects die than they escape.”
Under Tennessee v. Garner, a police shooting has to involve a suspected felon, but there also has to be a significant threat of death or physical injury. This threat can exist if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon. However, it can also exist if the officer has probable cause to believe that a suspect has committed a crime involving the infliction (or threatened infliction) or serious physical harm. Tennessee v. Garner also makes it clear that it is ideal if possible to warn a suspect before using deadly force.
The court later held in Graham v. Connor that the officer’s intentions during the shooting don’t matter, the only important thing is whether the decision to shoot is objectively reasonable. In other words, if the criteria in Garner are met, the use of force is justifiable even if the officer has another personal motive to shoot.
Possible Outcomes of Contreras
While the officers did not technically “warn” Contreras, they fired a shot in advance of the fatal rounds and issued multiple commands. Garner only requires warning if possible, perhaps not when making a split-second decision. Note, too, that only eight states currently require a verbal warning be given before law enforcement uses lethal force. California is not one of those states.
It will also be interesting to see what happens with the “gun” that may have been a cell phone. Under an objective standard, it is possible to claim that the officers had probable cause to believe that a threat existed. Contreras did not really threaten officers with a weapon, but had been involved moments earlier in a violent crime. On the other hand, Contreras was shot in the back.
While many in the United States would like to see more scrutiny of police shootings and potential narrowing of the laws surrounding it, this case’s facts may not help to deliver that outcome.
Authored by Alexis Watts, LegalMatch Legal Writer