When are police officers legally justified to use lethal force? In Estate of Biegert by Biegert v. Molitor, the Seventh Circuit held that an officer was justified in shooting a man who had stabbed another officer in the arm, and, with the knife, stepped toward the officer who shot him.
Claims of excessive force are brought via the Fourth Amendment, which courts analyze under a reasonableness standard. When evaluating the reasonableness of the use of lethal force, the Court in Biegert stated that courts “focus on the danger posed by the person to whom the force was applied.” Generally, officers may use deadly force against a suspect when the suspect brandishes a weapon, even if a less lethal alternative is available.
But the inquiry is not only whether the suspect has a weapon; rather, it is whether the suspect presents an immediate threat of serious harm. For instance, the Seventh Circuit held that officers violated the Fourth Amendment in Weinmann v. McClone, when, during a wellness check on a man who had locked himself in his garage with a shotgun, the officers barged into the garage and shot him without first attempting communication. The man had not posed a threat to the officers prior to the shooting.
Furthermore, officers violate the Fourth Amendment when they create a situation by which use of deadly force becomes inevitable, such as in Starks v. Enyart, in which an officer jumped in front of a moving car and the only way to prevent the officer from being struck was to shoot the driver. However, as in most cases, this was not the situation in Biegert. In Biegert, the plaintiff claimed the officers’ actions resulted in the decedent’s death when the officers failed to clear a knife block in the kitchen, from which the decedent grabbed the brandished knife. The Court rejected this argument, holding that even if the officers made mistakes, “the situation requiring them to use deadly force was not primarily of their own making.”
The plaintiff in Biegert further argued that there was a pause in between shots fired at the decedent, and that the secondary shots constituted excessive force because at that time the decedent no longer posed an immediate threat to the officers. Plaintiff cited evidence of garbled audio for this argument, and the Seventh Circuit rejected the argument on summary judgment because the audio was unclear. If it was provable that the decedent no longer posed a threat to the officers during the latter shots, then the issue may have gone to a jury.
It is clear that officers may use lethal force when individuals present immediate threats of serious harm to the officers or others, even if such force could have theoretically been prevented, and even if there may be an alternative, less deadly method available. Officers may also use lethal force when someone has “committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm and is about to escape,” as articulated by the Supreme Court in Tennessee v. Garner. As police incidents grow ever more prevalent in the news, the Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit have plainly laid the landscape of Fourth Amendment liability for the application of lethal force.