Did the Officers Use Excessive Force?

Graham v. Connor

490 U.S. 386, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989)

Dethorne Graham, a diabetic, brought a § 1983 action to recover damages for injuries sustained when law enforcement officers used physical force against him during an investigatory stop. The U.S. District Court directed a verdict for the defendant police officers. The court of appeals affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the opinion of the Court, in which Justices White, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy joined. Justice Blackmun filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justices Brennan and Marshall joined.


On November 12, 1984, Dethorne Graham, a diabetic, felt the onset of an insulin reaction. He asked a friend, William Berry, to drive him to a nearby convenience store so he could purchase some orange juice to counteract the reaction. Berry agreed, but when Graham entered the store, he saw a number of people ahead of him in the checkout line. Concerned about the delay, he hurried out of the store and asked Berry to drive him to a friend’s house instead. Respondent Connor, an officer of the Charlotte, North Carolina, Police Department, saw Graham hastily enter and leave the store. The officer became suspicious that something was amiss and followed Berry’s car. About one-half mile from the store, he made an investigative stop. Although Berry told Connor that Graham was simply suffering from a “sugar reaction,” the officer ordered Berry and Graham to wait while he found out what, if anything, had happened at the convenience store. When Officer Connor returned to his patrol car to call for backup assistance, Graham got out of the car, ran around it twice, and finally sat down on the curb, where he passed out briefly.

          In the ensuing confusion, a number of other Charlotte police officers arrived on the scene in response to Officer Connor’s request for backup. One of the officers rolled Graham over on the sidewalk and cuffed his hands tightly behind his back, ignoring Berry’s pleas to get him some sugar. Another officer said: “I’ve seen a lot of people with sugar diabetes that never acted like this. Ain’t nothing wrong with the M. F. but drunk. Lock the S. B. up.” Several officers then lifted Graham up from behind, carried him over to Berry’s car, and placed him face down on its hood. Regaining consciousness, Graham asked the officers to check in his wallet for a diabetic decal that he carried. In response, one of the officers told him to “shut up” and shoved his face down against the hood of the car. Four officers grabbed Graham and threw him headfirst into the police car. A friend of Graham’s brought some orange juice to the car, but the officers refused to let him have it. Finally, Officer Connor received a report that Graham had done nothing wrong at the convenience store, and the officers drove him home and released him.

          At some point during his encounter with the police, Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, and an injured shoulder; he also claims to have developed a loud ringing in his right ear that continues to this day. He commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the individual officers involved in the incident, all of whom are respondents here, alleging that they had used excessive force in making the investigatory stop, in violation of “rights secured to him under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” The case was tried before a jury. At the close of petitioner’s evidence, respondents moved for a directed verdict. In ruling on that motion, the District Court considered the following four factors, which it identified as “[t]he factors to be considered in determining when the excessive use of force gives rise to a cause of action under § 1983”;

1. the need for the application of force;

2. the relationship between that need and the amount of force that was used;

3. the extent of the injury inflicted; and

4. whether the force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm.

Finding that the amount of force used by the officers was “appropriate under the circumstances,” that “there was no discernable injury inflicted,” and that the force used “was not applied maliciously or sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm,” but in “a good faith effort to maintain or restore order in the face of a potentially explosive situation,” the District Court granted respondents’ motion for a directed verdict.

          A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.... We granted certiorari, and now reverse.


Fifteen years ago, in Johnson v. Glick [1974], the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit addressed a § 1983 damages claim filed by a pretrial detainee who claimed that a guard had assaulted him without justification. In evaluating the detainee’s claim, Judge Friendly applied neither the Fourth Amendment nor the Eighth, the two most textually obvious sources of constitutional protection against physically abusive governmental conduct. Instead, he looked to “substantive due process,” holding that “quite apart from any ‘specific’ of the Bill of Rights, application of undue force by law enforcement officers deprives a suspect of liberty without due process of law.” As support for this proposition, he relied upon our decision in Rochin v. California (1952) [see Chapter 3], which used the Due Process Clause to void a state criminal conviction based on evidence obtained by pumping the defendant’s stomach. If a police officer’s use of force which “shocks the conscience” could justify setting aside a criminal conviction, Judge Friendly reasoned, a correctional officer’s use of similarly excessive force must give rise to a due process violation actionable under § 1983. Judge Friendly went on to set forth four factors to guide courts in determining “whether the constitutional line has been crossed” by a particular use of force—the same four factors relied upon by the courts below in this case.

          In the years following Johnson v. Glick, the vast majority of lower federal courts have applied its four-part “substantive due process” test indiscriminately to all excessive force claims lodged against law enforcement and prison officials under § 1983, without considering whether the particular application of force might implicate a more specific constitutional right governed by a different standard. Indeed, many courts have seemed to assume, as did the courts... in this case, that there is a generic “right” to be free from excessive force, grounded not in any particular constitutional provision but rather in “basic principles of § 1983 jurisprudence.”

          We reject this notion that all excessive force claims brought under § 1983 are governed by a single generic standard. As we have said many times, § 1983 “is not itself a source of substantive rights,” but merely provides “a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Baker v. McCollan (1979). In addressing an excessive force claim brought under § 1983, analysis begins by identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force.... In most instances, that will be either the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures of the person, or the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, which are the two primary sources of constitutional protection against physically abusive governmental conduct. The validity of the claim must then be judged by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right, rather than to some generalized “excessive force” standard. See Tennessee v. Garner (claim of excessive force to effect arrest analyzed under a Fourth Amendment standard); Whitley v. Albers (1986) (claim of excessive force to subdue convicted prisoner analyzed under an Eighth Amendment standard).

          Where, as here, the excessive force claim arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees citizens the right “to be secure in their persons...against unreasonable...seizures” of the person....Today we...hold that all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force—deadly or not—in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other “seizure” of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its “reasonableness” standard, rather than under a “substantive due process” approach. Because the Fourth Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against this sort of physically intrusive governmental conduct, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of “substantive due process,” must be the guide for analyzing these claims....

          Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests” against the countervailing governmental interests at stake. Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it....With respect to a claim of excessive force, the...standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: “Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,” Johnson v. Glick, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

          As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the “reasonableness” inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. See Terry v. Ohio (in analyzing the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure, “it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard”). An officer’s evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer’s good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional.

          Because petitioner’s excessive force claim is one arising under the Fourth Amendment, the Court of Appeals erred in analyzing it under the four-part Johnson v. Glick test. That test, which requires consideration of whether the individual officers acted in “good faith” or “maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm,” is incompatible with a proper Fourth Amendment analysis. We do not agree with the Court of Appeals’ suggestion, that the “malicious and sadistic” inquiry is merely another way of describing conduct that is objectively unreasonable under the circumstances. Whatever the empirical correlations between “malicious and sadistic” behavior and objective unreasonableness may be, the fact remains that the “malicious and sadistic” factor puts in issue the subjective motivations of the individual officers, which our prior cases make clear has no bearing on whether a particular seizure is “unreasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.

          Nor do we agree with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion, that because the subjective motivations of the individual officers are of central importance in deciding whether force used against a convicted prisoner violates the Eighth Amendment, it cannot be reversible error to inquire into them in deciding whether force used against a suspect or arrestee violates the Fourth Amendment. Differing standards under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments are hardly surprising: the terms “cruel” and “punishment” clearly suggest some inquiry into subjective state of mind, whereas the term “unreasonable” does not. Moreover, the less protective Eighth Amendment standard applies “only after the State has complied with the constitutional guarantees traditionally associated with criminal prosecutions.” Ingraham v. Wright (1977). The Fourth Amendment inquiry is one of “objective reasonableness” under the circumstances, and subjective concepts like “malice” and “sadism” have no proper place in that inquiry.

          Because the Court of Appeals reviewed the District Court’s ruling on the motion for directed verdict under an erroneous view of the governing substantive law, its judgment must be vacated and the case remanded to that court for reconsideration of that issue under the proper Fourth Amendment standard.

It is so ordered.

Concurring Opinion

Justice Blackmun, with whom Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall join, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

          I join the Court’s opinion insofar as it rules that the Fourth Amendment is the primary tool for analyzing claims of excessive force in the prearrest context, and I concur in the judgment remanding the case to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration of the evidence under a reasonableness standard. In light of respondents’ concession, however, that the pleadings in this case properly may be construed as raising a Fourth Amendment claim, I see no reason for the Court to find it necessary further to reach out to decide that prearrest excessive force claims are to be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment rather than under a substantive due process standard. I also see no basis for the Court’s suggestion, that our decision in Tennessee v. Garner implicitly so held. Nowhere in Garner is a substantive due process standard for evaluating the use of excessive force in a particular case discussed; there is no suggestion that such a standard was offered as an alternative and rejected....


1. List the uses of force by the officers.

2. State the standard that the Court adopted for determining whether the use of force violated the Fourth Amendment.

2. How does the Court’s standard differ from the test that the Court of Appeals applied in the case?

3. Why did the Court change the standard? Which test do you favor? Explain your answer.

4. What is the main point of Justice Blackmun’s concurring opinion? Do you agree with it? Explain.

5. If you were applying the tests to the facts of this case, what decision would you reach? Defend your answer.