Police Officers Immune from Taser Lawsuit

A federal appeals court has determined that Missouri police who fatally stunned a mentally ill man with a Taser are not legally liable for his death.  The Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that St. Louis police officers did not act unreasonably, despite the unfortunate outcome.  Following the incident, the victim’s family sued the St. Louis Police Department and two of the officers alleging the police used unlawful excessive-force during the arrest, and were responsible for the avoidable death.  The 8th Circuit disagreed, and dismissed the case.

Police Officers Kill Man with Taser

In July of 2008 St. Louis resident Samuel De Boise, suffering from a schizophrenic episode, came under the influence of a serious psychotic delusion during which he believed he was God.  After wandering his neighborhood naked, De Boise returned home and forced his mother onto the floor, demanding that she worship him – leading her to call St. Louis Police for emergency assistance.  Upon arriving at the home, police officers found De Boise, still naked and believing he was God, in a severely agitated and destructive state.

During the ensuing confrontation, De Boise refused to lie down at the command of the officers, and made several menacing gestures and motions towards police who attempted to approach and handcuff him.  After ignoring police instruction, De Boise was eventually hit with a Taser shock in an effort to subdue him long enough for police to apply handcuffs.  De Boise was resistant to the first Taser shock, and eventually officers used a total of 9 Taser shocks totaling 50 seconds of force.  De Boise went into cardiac arrest, and died en route to a local hospital after attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Taser Victim’s Family Files Excessive-Force Lawsuit

Following De Boise’s death, his family members filed a lawsuit against the St. Louis PD and two of the officers on scene claiming excessive-use of force.  Although the plaintiffs did not dispute the necessity of the first two tasings, the lawsuit argued that the several that followed were unnecessary to restraining De Boise.  Claiming that his mental illness was the cause of his reaction, De Boise’s family argued that police were not appropriately sensitive to the situation and violated his legal rights by administering several taser shocks.

8th Circuit finds Police are Immune to Taser Lawsuit

The 8th Circuit focused its opinion on whether the police were entitled to qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that makes government officials, including cops, immune to lawsuit unless an official’s action is a clear violation of an established constitutional or statutory right about which a reasonable person in the official’s position would have known.  This means that a plaintiff suing a government official must demonstrate: 1) the facts show a clear violation of a constitutional or statutory right, AND 2) the right was clearly established at the time of the official’s alleged misconduct. 

The Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit looked closely at the 2nd point above and concluded that a reasonable officer, in observing De Boise’s behavior, would not have understood his actions to “be so disproportionate and unnecessary as to amount to a violation of De Boise’s rights.”  Although multiple tasings are not common practice for police officers, and established law protects non-violent and un-armed citizens from taser use, the 8th Circuit determined that there is not established law protecting potentially violent and dangerous suspects from receiving taser shocks until they are subdued.

At the time of the incident in 2008, when taser usage was still developing, the police officers who encountered De Boise were trained to avoid excessive taser use, but were faced with a potentially violent and uncontrollable suspect who would not adhere to police instruction.  Accordingly, the 8th Circuit found that the St. Louis PD acted reasonably, and were not in violation of constitutional or statutory right that would have prevented police in similar circumstances from using their taser until the suspect was under control.  Finding that De Boise’s family had not presented facts to break the police officers’ qualified immunity protection, the 8th Circuit dismissed the lawsuit before it could go to a jury.

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