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Supreme Court Set Standard for the Use of Police Force. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)


Graham v. Connor set an important precedent in defining the standards for evaluating the use of force by law enforcement. This case has had a lasting impact on how courts assess police actions involving force, emphasizing the objective reasonableness standard. It addressed a critical need to strike a balance between law enforcement’s duty to maintain public safety and individual rights, particularly during high-stress and rapidly evolving situations. This landmark case emerged from an incident involving a diabetic individual, Dethorne Graham, highlighting the necessity of understanding unique circumstances and considering the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene when evaluating the use of force.

On November 12, 1984, Dethorne Graham, a diabetic man, experienced a hypoglycemic episode and needed sugar to stabilize his blood sugar levels. He asked a friend to drive him to a convenience store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Concerned for Graham’s well-being, his friend hastily drove to the store, where Graham entered to purchase orange juice. Due to the long lines, Graham quickly left without making a purchase.

Sergeant Connor, an officer with the Charlotte Police Department, observed Graham’s hurried actions and deemed them suspicious. Believing Graham might be involved in criminal activity, Connor followed him and made an investigative stop. Despite Graham’s attempts to explain his medical condition, he was forcibly restrained, subjected to a strip search, and detained at the police station. Graham suffered injuries during the incident, leading him to file a lawsuit against the officers involved, citing excessive use of force.

Graham’s case went through several levels of the U.S. legal system before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Initially, the lower courts instructed the jury to consider whether the officers had used excessive force, using a standard of “objective reasonableness” based on the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable seizures.

However, the Supreme Court of the United States took up the case to clarify the appropriate standard for evaluating claims of excessive force by law enforcement officers.

Supreme Court Ruling
On May 15, 1989, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the police officers in Graham v. Connor. The court held that assessing the constitutionality of a particular use of force requires applying an “objective reasonableness” standard. The standard is to be based on the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than on the hindsight of 20/20 vision.

The court emphasized that an officer’s actions should be assessed in the context of the situation and the information known to them at the time, without the luxury of a calm, post-event analysis. This ruling sought to balance the rights of the individual with the need for law enforcement officers to make split-second decisions in tense, rapidly evolving situations.

Implications and Impact
Graham v. Connor established a vital legal precedent that continues to influence how excessive force cases involving law enforcement are evaluated across the United States. The ruling underscores the importance of assessing police actions in the context of the situation and considering the reasonable beliefs and perceptions of officers in the heat of the moment.

By adopting an objective reasonableness standard, the court sought to balance the rights of individuals with the challenges faced by law enforcement officers in making critical decisions. This decision has since been referenced in numerous cases, shaping the landscape of police conduct and accountability.

Graham v. Connor is a pivotal case in U.S. legal history that significantly impacted how courts evaluate claims of excessive force by law enforcement. By establishing an objective reasonableness standard, the case sought to strike a balance between protecting individual rights and acknowledging the challenges faced by police officers in their duty to maintain public safety. Understanding this case is crucial for comprehending the evolution of policing standards and the ongoing efforts to ensure law enforcement’s accountability and responsibility.

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