Federal Court Concludes that Taser Use Can Constitute Excessive Force

Police office with taser gun

When a police officer injures someone by using inappropriate force, the injury victim may be entitled to sue for battery under state law. Those lawsuits can be difficult to win, in part because states often create standards of immunity from suit for public employees that are impossible to overcome.

Injury victims typically turn to federal courts when basing a claim on a law enforcement officer's use of excessive force. A federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, authorizes lawsuits against individuals who, while acting "under color of law," violate the federal constitutional rights of another person. A police officer who is on duty and identifying himself or herself as a police officer (by, for example, wearing a badge or making an arrest) is acting under color of law. Police officers may be immune from suit under § 1983, but only if it was unclear at the time they acted that their conduct violated the injury victim's civil rights.

The use of excessive force to detain a suspect violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizures. The question that frequently arises in excessive force lawsuits is how much force an officer can use before a court will conclude that the force was excessive. That question was recently answered by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Estate of Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst, a case that involved an officer's use of a Taser. The Armstrong case also explored the extent to which public officials are immune from suit for civil rights violations.

Facts of the case

Ronald Armstrong suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Based on his behavior before leaving a hospital emergency room against his doctor's advice, a doctor determined that Armstrong posed a danger to himself. Following North Carolina law, the doctor issued involuntary commitment papers to compel Armstrong's return to the hospital. The doctor did not find Armstrong to be dangerous to other people.

The police quickly located Armstrong at an intersection near the hospital. They engaged him in conversation as they awaited finalization of the commitment papers. Armstrong was calm and cooperative, although he engaged in bizarre but nonthreatening behavior, including eating dandelions and putting out cigarettes on his tongue.

Once the police were notified that the commitment papers were ready, they surrounded Armstrong. He responded by wrapping himself around a stop sign pole. Three police officers spent thirty seconds trying to pry him loose. One of the officers then told Armstrong that he would be shot with a Taser if he did not surrender. Armstrong refused, and the officer shot him with the Taser five times over a two-minute period. The Taser was set to "drive stun mode" which, according to the manufacturer, causes extreme pain but not paralysis.

Tasing Armstrong did not make him more cooperative. The manufacturer of the Taser device warns that tasing a mentally ill individual is more likely to exacerbate the problem than to coerce compliance with the officer's instructions.

After the tasing ceased, the three police officers, with the assistance of two hospital security guards, were able to pull Armstrong away from the pole. They stood on his back, handcuffed him, and shackled his legs. The officers left Armstrong face down on the grass as they "collected themselves." Eventually someone noticed that Armstrong had stopped moving. The officers rolled Armstrong onto his back and discovered that he was no longer breathing. Paramedics were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Excessive Force

Whether the use of force violates the Fourth Amendment depends upon whether the level of force used was objectively reasonable. That question requires a court to consider the threat posed by the individual, the severity of any crime the individual committed, and the degree to which he or she is resisting arrest.

Surprisingly, the district court found it "doubtful" that the police committed a constitutional violation. Tasing an unarmed, nonviolent individual who has threatened neither the police nor the public seems self-evidently excessive. Doing so five times over the course of two minutes is tantamount to torture.

The court of appeals disagreed with the district court. The court of appeals noted that Armstrong had committed no crime. His mental illness had recently been assessed by a professional and the assessment gave the police no reason to believe that Armstrong was dangerous to anyone but himself. Armstrong was not armed. He made no threats. Other than refusing to be taken into custody, his behavior was calm and restrained. None of those facts suggested that the infliction of extreme pain was a reasonable response to Armstrong's actions.

The court of appeals also observed that the commitment order was issued to prevent Armstrong from harming himself. Doing harm to Armstrong in order to take him into custody contravened the very purpose of the commitment order.

Finally, while Armstrong resisted being taken into custody, the fear that Armstrong would flee justified the use of only the amount of force required to prevent him from doing so. Given that Armstrong was surrounded by three police officers and two security guards, it seems unlikely that any force at all was required, at least until other reasonable options (such as having a mental health counselor or a relative talk to Armstrong) were attempted.

Concluding that the deployment of a Taser is a serious use of force, the court of appeals had no difficulty concluding that its use was disproportionate to the need for force. Tasers are designed to inflict excruciating pain, yet the officers spent only 30 seconds trying to persuade Armstrong to let go of the pole before shooting him repeatedly with the Taser. As the court noted, "immediately tasing a non-criminal, mentally ill individual, who seconds before had been conversational, was not a proportional response" to Armstrong's behavior.

Qualified Immunity

Government officials may only be sued for a federal civil rights violation if the constitutional right has been clearly established in the context of the official's actions. A civil rights violation is clearly established when all reasonable officials should understand that the law prohibits the action they are taking. When a right has not been clearly established, the "qualified immunity" doctrine shields officers from liability for their misconduct.

The court of appeals decided that Armstrong's right to be free from tasing while nonviolently resisting arrest had not been clearly established at the time Armstrong's tasing occurred. The court therefore granted immunity from suit to the officers who tased Armstrong. As a result of the court's decision, however, police officers are now on notice that using a Taser on a suspect who poses no immediate risk to the safety of the public or the officer constitutes a civil rights violation for which they can be sued.

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