Litigation

Some Good Taser News: Federal Appeals Court Restricts Its Use

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Matt Welch had some of the usual bad Taser news earlier today (with loads of other Taserriffic links); the L.A. Times reports on some rare good Taser news that could keep the bad Taser news on the run in the future:

A federal appeals court this week ruled that a California police officer can be held liable for injuries suffered by an unarmed man he Tasered during a traffic stop. The decision, if allowed to stand, would set a rigorous legal precedent for when police are permitted to use the weapons and would force some law enforcement agencies throughout the state—and presumably the nation—to tighten their policies governing Taser use, experts said.

"This decision talks about the need for an immediate threat. . . . Some departments allow Tasers in cases of passive resistance, such as protesters who won't move," [the L.A. County Sheriffs Department's Michael Gennaco] said. Tasering for "passive resistance is out the door now with this decision. Even resistance by tensing or bracing may not qualify."….

The unanimous ruling, issued Monday by a three-judge panel, stemmed from a 2005 encounter in which a former Coronado, Calif., police officer, Brian McPherson, stopped a man for failing to wear a seat belt while driving. The driver, Carl Bryan, who testified that he did not hear McPherson order him to remain in the car, exited the vehicle and stood about 20 feet away from the officer. Bryan grew visibly agitated and angry with himself, but did not make any verbal threats against McPherson, according to court documents. McPherson has said he fired his Taser when Bryan took a step toward him—a claim Bryan has denied.

Bryan's face slammed against the pavement when he collapsed, causing bruises and smashing four front teeth.

The appellate court did not rule on whether McPherson acted appropriately, but simply cleared the way for Bryan to pursue a civil case against the officer and the city of Coronado in a lower court. Based on Bryan's version of events, though, the judges found that McPherson used excessive force in firing the Taser, since Bryan did not appear to pose any immediate threat.

In spelling out their decision, the judges established legally binding standards about where Tasers fall on the spectrum of force available to police officers, and laid out clear guidelines for when an officer should be allowed to use the weapon. The judges, for example, said Tasers should be considered a more serious use of force than pepper spray—a distinction that runs counter to policies used by most law enforcement agencies in California and elsewhere….

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' full ruling.