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Can Taser Use Ever Be Excessive Force?

More and more these days, police departments are being encouraged to use Tasers instead of guns to help minimize the use of deadly force.  But can using a Taser also constitute excessive force under certain circumstances? It appears that the answer is yes.  According to a report from the American Bar Association Law Journal, Taser use can indeed constitute excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

What is excessive force?

The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Excessive force used during a police seizure renders that seizure unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional.  “Excessive force” is more force than the officer reasonably believed was necessary in the particular situation.   In determining whether the amount of force used was reasonable, courts consider all the facts and circumstances, including whether the force was proportional in context.

Taser use and excessive force

The ABA Journal’s report describes a recent case in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia held Taser use in some circumstances may constitute unconstitutionally excessive force. That case involved Ronald Armstrong, who had been diagnosed with both paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  After he had been off his medications for several days, his sister became concerned about his behavior and convinced him to go with her to the hospital.  During the evaluation process, Armstrong fled the hospital.  A doctor issued involuntary commitment papers to compel Armstrong’s return.  Notably, the doctor concluded only that Armstrong was a threat to himself, but not to others.

The police were called to bring Armstrong back to the hospital.  When Armstrong learned about the commitment papers, he wrapped himself around a signpost and refused to leave with the officers.  According to the court’s opinion, instead of trying to talk Armstrong into accompanying them back to the hospital, three police officers Tased him five times over about two minutes.  Rather than encouraging his cooperation, the Tasing only increased Armstrong’s resistance.  Thereafter, the police dragged him away from the signpost, laid him on the ground, and cuffed him.  At one point, Armstrong complained that he was being choked.  After Armstrong was shackled, his sister noticed that he was no longer moving.  When police checked, they discovered that his skin was blue and he was not breathing.  He was returned to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

Armstrong’s sister sued the police on behalf of her brother’s estate, alleging unconstitutional use of excessive force.  The Court of Appeals agreed that the police’s Taser use violated Armstrong’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The court noted that Armstrong had not committed a crime and was not a danger to anyone except himself.  Even though he resisted the officers and was considered a flight risk, using the Taser was greater force than necessary under the circumstances.  The court explained that, under its previous rulings, use of a Taser is considered proportional force only to mitigate an immediate threat.  Physical resistance, said the court, is not the same thing as an immediate threat.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s estate will not recover any compensation.  Police are entitled to qualified immunity from lawsuits if, even though they have violated someone’s constitutional rights, they could reasonably have believed that their actions were lawful.  Because the law regarding Tasers had been unclear, the court ruled that the officers were not sufficiently on notice that their actions were unreasonable.

Consult an Orlando civil rights attorney

If you believe your civil rights have been violated, consult the dedicated civil rights attorneys of The Baez Law Firm.  We have the experience and dedication to protect your rights in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and throughout the state.  Contact The Baez Law Firm today.

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