According to the CDC, a “sharp instrument” was used in over 1,300 homicides in 2019. Knives are dangerous and police officers are justified in treating them as such. Under what circumstances may an officer shoot someone who refuses to drop a knife?
Recent well-publicized incidents have led to questions about when a law enforcement officer may use deadly force to seize a fleeing suspect. The short answer is that the Constitution permits an officer to use deadly force when he or she has probable cause to believe that a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or to others. Because officers must make “split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving,” courts evaluate the reasonableness of an officer’s determination from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and without the benefit of hindsight. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989). The Constitution “does not require police to gamble with their lives in the face of a serious threat of harm.” Elliott v. Leavitt, 99 F.3d 640, 641 (4th Cir. 1996).
Factors critical to evaluating the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force to effectuate a seizure include: (1) the severity of the crime at issue; (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; and (3) whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by fleeing. Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. An officer’s subjective intent or motivation is not relevant to the inquiry, nor is the reasonableness of the officer’s actions in creating the dangerous situation. Waterman v. Batton, 393 F.3d 471, 477 (4th Cir. 2005)
The short answer seldom provides a definitive assessment of whether an officer’s use of deadly force in a particular circumstance violated a suspect’s constitutional rights. Even so, there are a few bright-line principles that can be applied to any such inquiry.
We now have a number of appellate opinions interpreting the defensive force statutes enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011. In State v. Kuhns, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 3, 2018), we have our first opinion squarely addressing the provisions of G.S. 14-51.2, which deals with defensive force in a home, workplace, or motor vehicle. This post focuses on the home, where the conflict in Kuhns occurred, but some of the same principles apply to the workplace and motor vehicles.
The N&O series: Deadly Force. Today the News and Observer published the last article of its four part investigative series Deadly Force, a series that chronicles numerous physical confrontations between Harnett County sheriff’s deputies and citizens and the deaths and injuries that resulted.