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Tyre Nichols: Did Memphis Police Violate the Constitution? 

February 22, 2023
tyre nichols excessive force
Image courtesy of New York Post

Among the latest slew of police brutality incidents against Black Americans, the death of Tyre Nichols has again fueled demand for police accountability across the nation. As we grapple with the tragedy of his death, it’s worth zooming in on the laws and policies governing how and under what circumstances officers can use force against individuals.  

Here’s how the facts break down from a legal perspective: 

What Happened to Tyre Nichols? 

Tyre Nichols was a 29-year-old father to a 4-year-old son. On January 7, 2023, police savagely beat Tyre following a traffic stop for reckless driving. He died as a result of his injuries three days later. 

From video footage released by the City of Memphis, we can establish a timeline of events demonstrating the increasingly brutal use of force by police officers.

In the video, we can see the police: 

  • Forcibly pull Tyre out of his car
  • Shove him to the ground
  • Pepper spray him

At this point, Tyre gets up and attempts to run away as another officer tries to tase him. Once officers catch up with him, police become increasingly violent despite outnumbering and subduing Tyre. The video then shows Tyre screaming for his mother as officers continue to:

  • Punch and kick him
  • Beat him with a baton 
  • Pepper spray him again 

Tyre is taken to St. Francis Hospital to receive treatment for his injuries following the assault. According to his autopsy, Tyre dies three days later due to extensive bleeding caused by the severe police beating. 

This is a case of excessive police use of force. 

What Is Police Use of Force?

Let’s start with some basic principles governing police use of force against citizens. (Find a detailed description of use of force rules here.)

Police may use any force reasonably necessary to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement goal. 

A “legitimate law enforcement goal” is primarily to take someone into custody or to defend the officers or others against a reasonably anticipated threat of harm. The officers must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe a crime has been committed, is being committed, or is about to be committed, in order to attempt to take a citizen into custody.  

If there is no such cause or threat of harm, no use of force is permitted. Any use of force under those conditions is unjustified, excessive, and unconstitutional. 

Use of force is not permitted for any purpose other than to take a subject into custody. 

Assuming probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or defense of self or others, officers may only use force to take a subject into custody. This means that force is not permitted to: 

  • Punish someone for committing a crime
  • Teach a lesson for disrespecting the officer
  • Deter future bad conduct 

Each instance of use of force must be reasonably necessary.  

Each punch, each swing of a baton, each use of pepper spray, each firing of a gun, must be reasonably necessary to accomplish the law enforcement goal under the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the moment the force is applied. This depends mostly on the conduct of the citizen being taken into custody. 

Use of Force in the Tyre Nichols Case

What happened to Tyre Nichols can be broken down into four main events: 

  1. The decision to pull Tyre over
  2. The officers’ initial approach after he was pulled over
  3. The officers’ use of force in pulling him out of his car
  4. The officers’ use of force after he was pulled from his car

The Pull-Over

What we need to know: Did the officers have probable cause to pull Tyre Nichols over? If not, then everything that happens next is probably an unreasonable seizure.

The officers claimed Tyre was driving recklessly, but the Memphis police chief told the media there was no proof of that. 

“We’ve looked at cameras. We’ve looked at body worn cameras. Even if something occurred prior to this stop, we’ve been unable to substantiate it”, she said. Without such proof, all of the subsequent actions of the officers must be viewed skeptically.

The Initial Approach

What we need to know: Did police have information about the driver or the car on the radio?  What did they observe the driver or the car do? Did they have reason to believe there are weapons or illegal substances in the car?  

Officers may be justified in unholstering their weapons if they have reason to believe the driver or passenger poses a threat. Very rarely would they be justified in approaching while pointing their weapons at the driver or a passenger as they approach. 

An extended vehicle pursuit may provide sufficient cause for this. In Nichols’ case, the officers approached in a very aggressive manner, shouting commands at him, cursing, acting the way officers often react after a hair-raising pursuit when they’re flooded with adrenaline. 

You often see this kind of behavior in excessive force cases. 

But the police description was reckless driving–not a pursuit. Under these circumstances, the exaggerated police reaction appears to be not only unwarranted, but highly dangerous. It raises the tension and increases the chances that someone, officer or suspect or both, will end up hurt. 

Officers Pull Tyre From the Car 

What we need to know: Why did they pull him from the car?  Pulling Tyre from his car was a use of force. Remember: any use of force must be reasonably necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement goal. 

In the video, Tyre is the calm one, speaking to the officers in measured tones, ensuring them he’s obeying their commands. The officers appear out of control, over the top, and highly agitated and aggressive. 

There’s a mismatch here because there is no apparent reason for the officers to be this agitated. 

Each passing moment supplies the officers with additional information, all of which they must use to determine their next steps, all of which constitutes the “totality of the circumstances” that will be used to evaluate the officers’ conduct afterwards. 

When Can Police Use Deadly Force? 

Deadly force is a subcategory of police force. Generally, deadly force is permissible only when the officer reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or others.  

Many police officers are trained to use force on a continuum, referred to as the Use of Force Continuum (UFC). The UFC ranges from cooperative controls to deadly force, with several de-escalation steps in between. 

As its name implies, deadly force will likely cause death or great bodily harm. More often than not, it involves using a firearm, but it can also include chokeholds (which have been banned in many jurisdictions) and the use of blunt force objects to the head, such as a baton. 

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Was Deadly Force Justified in the Case of Tyre Nichols? 

No. In the case of Tyre Nichols, deadly force was not justified. Ultimately, the officers committed at least two violations of the law during Tyre’s arrest: 

  • Excessive use of force: police use of force is considered a “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Excessive force is considered an unreasonable seizure. 
  • Failure to intervene: officers that are aware a fellow officer is violating a victim’s Constitutional rights must take action to protect the victim, or they may be sued or prosecuted for failure to intervene. 

The officers may also be liable for unlawful detention and false arrest, if there was no basis to believe Tyre was involved in criminal conduct.

What Will Happen To the Officers Involved in the Death of Tyre Nichols? 

Five former Memphis police officers have been arrested, booked, and charged with felonies that include second-degree murder. Bonds are set as high as $350,000. Attorneys for the officers say they will plead not guilty. 

Two other officers were suspended after they failed to report in the daily activity log that they were on the scene following the traffic stop. Additionally, these officers failed to activate their body cameras during the stop. However, the city of Memphis stated that there would be no charges against these two deputies. 

Additionally, two emergency responders from the Memphis fire department were dismissed after a video showed they failed to provide medical care for Tyre for 19 minutes. In the video, Tyre falls to the ground multiple times, unable to stay upright against the side of a police vehicle. Tyre wasn’t transported to the hospital to receive medical care until 27 minutes after emergency responders arrived. 

How Much Will Tyre’s Family Receive in Damages? 

Joanna Schwartz, a professor at UCLA School of Law, says, “damages brought by the family of Tyre Nicholes will be settled quickly and for a substantial amount of money.” For context, similar lawsuits in cities like Minneapolis paid upwards of $27 million for the brutal death of George Floyd, while Louisville paid $12 million for the senseless death of Breonna Taylor. 

But with only $1.25 million earmarked in the police budget for lawsuits and another $5 million lawsuit related to an encounter with the same officers pending, many are left to wonder: where will the money come from? 

UPDATE: Tyre’s family files $550 million lawsuit against the City of Memphis.

Will the Tragedy of Tyre Nichols Inspire Police Reform? 

It’s possible that, as part of the settlement with Nichols’ family, there could be changes in the way police are trained to respond using de-escalation tactics. There is some precedent: as part of Louisville’s settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family, the city promised policy changes regarding search warrants and handling emergency response calls. 

The Memphis City Council is considering a raft of reforms in the wake of Tyre’s death, including calls for more transparency around the use of force data, access to body cam video, reformed hiring practices, and the implementation of a citizen review board. 

It is worth noting that Tyre’s death comes after a round of reforms in 2020 where Memphis pledged to revisit use-of-force policies following the death of George Floyd. The policies addressed include the duty to intervene to stop dangerous conduct by a fellow officer. 

Everyone Deserves Protection Under the Constitution. 

Police excessive force cases can be tricky to navigate. However, with an experienced attorney on your side, you can receive maximum compensation for your mistreatment.

If you think you or someone you know may have been a victim of excessive force, false arrest, or any other civil rights violation, contact Chicago civil rights lawyer Jordan Marsh for a free consultation at (224) 220-9000 or at Let’s discuss your civil rights complaint and find out if you have an excessive force claim. 

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