Legal Options if Police Fire at an Unarmed Suspect

By Susan McGuire posted 07-07-2021 03:00 AM


The numerous police shootings that happen today inevitably raise the question of what constitutes “reasonable force.” Police officers may have to exert force in carrying out their duties but there are times when what they do is definitely a violation of civil rights. Each case is different and various factors influence the outcome. Judges and juries have to consider all the circumstances before reaching a decision. 

Fourth Amendment rights

Legal and public opinion has changed a great deal since the times when police officers who shot suspects may have been praised rather than facing criminal charges. Today those who experience excessive force at the hands of police officers have a right to seek legal assistance. 

Police brutality lawyers at have experience in cases like this and can help to ensure that people’s civil rights are protected. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and this includes the use of excessive force by police officers. 

Establishing the legal foundations

In 1968 a landmark Supreme Court case, Terry vs Ohio, provided police officers with grounds to stop and frisk a civilian without probable cause if they had reason to suspect that the person had committed or was about to commit a crime. They had to have a reasonable belief that the person was armed and dangerous. 

In the 1980s, various Supreme Court decisions reinforced the legal foundations used today of when deadly force is permissible by the police and when it is not. One factor that must be taken into account is whether a suspect is an immediate threat to the safety of police officers and others. 

Another factor to consider is how severe the crime is and whether the safety of the officers or the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others. Some suspects actively resist arrest or try to avoid arrest by fleeing and this complicates the issue. 

Firing at fleeing suspects

The law may give police officers some latitude to use deadly force when they feel physically endangered but it isn’t as flexible when it comes to firing at fleeing individuals. Officers are not supposed to use deadly force when pursuing someone on foot or in a car unless the person they’re chasing is seen as an immediate threat to safety. 

If a police officer was chasing a fleeing man who had just committed a murder, there might be reasonable grounds to argue that the shooting was justified. If the person being chased had never fired a weapon, the officer would have far more difficulty proving a shooting was justified. Fleeing felons should be apprehended, not shot at, unless there are circumstances that require urgent police action to protect the community as a whole. 

Although the legal standard has been established, cases involving police using excessive force against fleeing felons continue to be seen in the courts. These may involve high-speed chases that end in the death of the driver or passengers. 

An officer’s state of mind

A key issue in police shootings is whether a suspect really poses a threat and whether the police officer perceives the threat correctly. Legally speaking, the answer to this can be complex. That could mean that if a police officer truly believed a suspect had a gun but turned out to be wrong, he could be off the hook. 

Even if a police officer is charged, it can be difficult to obtain a conviction due to the complexity of police brutality cases. In such cases, the help of an experienced attorney is invaluable and can make a difference.