An Overview of Graham Vs Connor 1989 Case

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9 min read

Published: Jan 21, 2020

Words: 1777|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Jan 21, 2020

The subjects of use of force and search-and-seizures are controversial topics in the media regarding the Criminal Justice field today. Many instances are sensationalized in the media. However, there are instances of note which has mostly gone unheard of by the people. In 1989 Graham v. Connor came before the United States Supreme Court, a case which to many outside the legal system seemed irrelevant, a case in which the Courts would see fit to create a new legal standard. In a rare moment of clarity, the members of the court were of the opinion that what is now regarded as an “objective reasonableness” standard should apply to a civilian's claim that a member of law enforcement used what they believe to be excessive force in the course of attempting to make an arrest, or to conduct an investigatory stop, or some other "seizure" of the person.

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And so it was that on November 12th, 1984, Dethorne Graham, a maintenance worker for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and a diagnosed diabetic, had the feeling that he was at the beginning of a diabetic reaction and that he needed sugar to offset the insulin he had recently taken. So, Mr. Graham asked a friend to drive him to a local convenience store so that he could purchase orange juice to counteract the insulin reaction. (Connor, n. d. )As Mr. Graham entered the store, Graham took note of the police car parked across from the store but didn't give it a second thought. He was after all just another innocent member of the public going about his daily business. However, he needed sugar and he couldn't wait.

On entering the store and seeing the number of people ahead of him, Graham, later by his own admission, hurried out of the store and asked his friend to drive him elsewhere for his sugar. Officer Connor of the Charlotte Police Department, who was sitting in his patrol vehicle across the street, saw Graham enter the store, then quickly run from the store, this was what has often been described by police officers as a textbook move for a thief or strong-arm robber. (Rehnquist, 1988)In fact, officers are trained to look for and to recognize such suspicious activity and Connor, along with any other officer being "objectionably reasonable", would think that Graham's actions were suspicious, and as a result worthy of investigating further. Graham entered the vehicle in which he had previously been the passenger, and together he and his friend left the immediate area.

Naturally as previously stated, for a seasoned Police Officer such behavior would be regarded as being somewhat suspicious and Officer Connor immediately pulled them over for what was initially going to be an investigative stop. A simple stop to determine what they were doing at the store, and if fact a crime had been committed. (Rehnquist, 1988)The driver of the vehicle, Mr. William Berry, tried to explain to officer Connor that Graham was a diabetic, but the officer being unsure of the circumstances, ordered the pair to wait while he made enquiries as to what had transpired in the store. When Connor returned to his patrol car to call for backup, Graham got out of his vehicle, and proceeded to run around it twice, before finally sitting down on the curb, where he then passed out briefly. (Rehnquist, 1988)As a response to Connor’s call for assistance, a number of other Charlotte Police Officers arrived on the scene to act as backup. One of these officers rolled Graham over on the sidewalk and cuffed his hands behind his back.

As all of this was taking place, Mr. Berry was supposedly pleading with the officers to get Graham some sugar. A number of the Officers then lifted Graham from behind, and proceeded to carry him over to Berry's car, where he was placed face down on its hood. (Rehnquist, 1988)On his regaining consciousness, a fact that Officers were not in a position to actually verify, Graham asked the officers to check in his wallet for a diabetic identification card that he carried. In response, one of the officers allegedly told him to "shut up" and was accused of shoving Graham face down against the hood of the car. Four officers then took hold of Graham and put him again head first into the police car. (Rehnquist, 1988)Another friend of Graham brought some orange juice over to the car, but the officers refused to let him have it. Finally, Officer Connor received a report from other Officers on the scene of the convenience store that that Graham had done nothing wrong on the premises and that no crime had in fact taken place. With that finding, one of the officers drove Graham home and released him. (Rehnquist, 1988). At some unfortunate point during his painful encounter with the police, Graham claimed to have sustained a broken bone in his foot, a number of cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead, and an injured shoulder; he also claims to have developed a loud ringing (tinnitus) in his right ear that supposedly continues to this day. Graham, as was his right under the law, filed a suit against Officer Connor accusing him of having violated his (Graham’s) Fourth Amendment rights (Rehnquist, 1988). Graham was in a financial position whereby he was able to secure his own legal counsel and filed a federal lawsuit under a section of U. S. Code that covers the violation of someone's civil rights by a law enforcement officer. The case wound its way through the usual appellate process and all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, which established the rulings in Graham v. Connor under the Constitution in 1989.

However, before we can even begin to examine the facts of the case at hand, it must be stated that since the inception of S. C. O. T. U. S no law enforcement officer ever has risen from his or her bed and thought, “this is it, todays the day I want to make case law”. Yet, there are those extremely rare moments in history, those occasions where an individual officer's actions, and his or her very observations, thoughts and feelings will fall under scrutiny. It is just these very few brief moments in time, over the course sometimes of mere seconds, that brings the attention of attorneys, courts, and finally the media, who to garner attention to their product will provide a very one-sided story to pander to their audience, and of course it is those very same mere seconds that will make the difference as to whether an Officer will go home this day, or if they will become another statistic ignored by the media, a name on a wall in Washington D. C about whom only we few will ever care. For all of that, there is small hope, such instances can find their way to S. C. O. T. U. S and if deemed worthy of a hearing, the details of an incident may be solidified as case law in the highest courts of the land. The 1989 case of Graham v. Connor is just such an example of how the actions of one lone individual officer began a process that would establish a significant case law. Findings brought about as a result of Graham v. Connor continue to this day to determine the legality of every use of force decision, made by every Law Enforcement Officer in the Nation.

The court’s majority decision was written by then Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Justice Rehnquist argued that the main issue of the case was “whether the officers’ actions were as termed “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them at that time (Rehnquist, 1988). The “reasonableness” of a single particular use of force should be judged only from the perspective of a reasonable officer who was present at the time. And it was stated that there must be allowance for the fact that Law Enforcement Officers are often required to make potential life or death, split-second decisions in regard to the amount of force necessary in a given situation. ” (Rehnquist, 1988) Most notably Justice Rehnquist rejected the idea that courts should evaluate actions based on “the 20/20 vision of hindsight. ” (Rehnquist, 1988)The Court held 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 (Rehnquist, 1988).

The notion that all excessive force claims brought under § 1983 are governed by a single generic standard is rejected. Instead, courts must identify the specific a constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force, and then judge the claim by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right (Rehnquist, 1988). This decision is important to the general public as it applies to all uses of force, while this particular case falls under the Fourth Amendment for “search and seizure”, many uses of force can fall under the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause. This ruling, along with other case laws, are applied to every single use of force that occurs, be it pretrial arrest, detention, or incarceration. With my current career path as a Corrections Professional seemingly laid out before me, I should in passing point out that Correctional Officers are most often overlooked by the public for what they truly are.

These Officers are indeed members of the Law Enforcement community, they have daily contact with, and custody of individuals who have consistently shown complete disregard for society’s rules, and often for the rules of the facility’s in which they find themselves incarcerated, and who sometimes require the application of some kind of force to even accomplish the otherwise most basic of tasks. However, as a result of an increasingly inmate orientated penal system, there have been a significant number of court cases discussing the circumstances in which force can or more importantly cannot be used, and just as with their colleagues on the street’s the constitutional principles of “objectively reasonable” that will apply if that use of force is challenged in court.

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Some of these cases will without doubt fail fall under the Fourth Amendment regarding the rules on searches and seizure as it applies to the community and pretrial arrests. Some will arise under the Fifth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment regarding the due process clauses of the constitution. Others will be considered under the Eighth Amendment, which otherwise protects individuals from cruel and unusual punishment.

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An Overview Of Graham Vs Connor 1989 Case. (2020, January 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 7, 2023, from
“An Overview Of Graham Vs Connor 1989 Case.” GradesFixer, 15 Jan. 2020,
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