Graham v. Connor

The Incident

Dethorne Graham didn't commit a crime, but his 1984 encounter with police officers left him with a broken foot, hurt shoulder, bruised forehead, and other injuries. So, what happened? Did the officers break the law? What are the rules regarding a police officer's use of force? Let's take a look at when an officer can legally use physical power on a suspect, and how much power can be used.

Graham was a diabetic and felt he was having an insulin reaction. Graham asked his friend, Berry, to drive him to a convenience store so that Graham could buy orange juice. Graham, like many diabetics, felt the sugar in the juice would counteract his reaction. Graham hurried into the convenience store but quickly exited because he saw that the checkout line was long. He got back in Berry's car, and the two left.

Charlotte Police Officer Connor was observing from across the street and thought Graham's actions were suspicious. The way Graham hurried in and out of the store made Connor think the two might be engaged in criminal behavior, such as stealing from the store.

Officer Connor followed Graham and Berry's car, pulling them over just a couple blocks from the store. Berry explained Graham's health situation, but Officer Connor felt the situation needed further investigation. He instructed Berry and Graham to stay in their car while he sent another officer back to the store to determine what had happened. However, Graham began acting strangely. He exited the car and ran around it twice, before sitting down on the curb and briefly passing out.

Backup officers arrived and, thinking Graham was drunk, handcuffed him. The officers forced Graham onto the car's hood, and then head first into the back seat of a police car. Though Graham regained consciousness and a friend arrived with the orange juice, the officers refused to give it to Graham. The officers also refused to check Graham's wallet for an emblem he insisted would prove he was diabetic.

Finally, the officer returned from the store to report that nothing had happened there. The officers drove Graham home and released him.

The Case

Graham then sued the officers for civil rights violations. His case was dismissed, because the court felt the officers had not acted 'maliciously and sadistically' in an attempt to injure Graham or violate his rights. Notice how the court applied a subjective standard, in that they judged whether or not Officer Connor and the other officers involved meant to, or tried to, injure Graham.

Graham then petitioned to have his case reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. The Court accepted his case and remanded the case, meaning they sent it back to the lower court, to be reconsidered. This time, the Supreme Court directed the lower court to use an objective standard. The test needed to be neutral and impartial, rather than based on the officers' actual thoughts and intentions.


Graham filed suit in the District Court under 42 U.S.C. 1983 against respondents, alleging that they had used excessive force in making the stop, in violation of "rights secured to him under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution." The District Court granted respondents' motion for a directed verdict at the close of Graham's evidence, applying a four-factor test for determining when excessive use of force gives rise to a 1983 cause of action, which inquires 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. The Court of Appeals affirmed, endorsing this test as generally applicable to all claims of constitutionally excessive force brought against government officials, rejecting Graham's argument that it was error to require him to prove that the allegedly excessive force was applied maliciously and sadistically to cause harm, and holding that a reasonable jury could not find that the force applied was constitutionally excessive.

Held: All claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force -- deadly or not -- in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of a free citizen are properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, rather than under a substantive due process standard.

The Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" inquiry 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. The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.

Vacated and Remanded.