Tasers

Court Says Cops Who Protected a Mental Patient to Death Violated His Rights

The 4th Circuit rules that police should tase people only when they pose "an immediate safety risk."

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Wikipedia

Jinia Armstrong Lopez was worried about her brother, Ronald Armstrong, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, had stopped taking the drugs prescribed for those conditions, and was poking holes in the skin of his legs "to let the air out." Lopez convinced Armstrong to come with her to Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he was initially cooperative but soon bolted. The examining doctor filled out a form identifying Armstrong as a danger to himself and called police to capture him. But the cops proved to be more of a danger to Armstrong than he was to himself, and he was dead less than seven minutes after the commitment papers were finalized.

This week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the police who protected Armstrong to death used excessive force during the 2011 incident—in particular, by shocking him with a stun gun five times in two minutes in a vain attempt to disengage him from a stop sign post to which he was clinging with his arms and legs. The cops ultimately pulled him off the post and pinned him to the ground facedown, one of them kneeling on his back and another standing on it, then handcuffed him and shackled his legs. "During the struggle," the court noted, "Armstrong complained that he was being choked." After the officers "stood up to collect themselves," his sister noticed that he was motionless and unresponsive. When the cops rolled him over, they found that "his skin had turned a bluish color, and he did not appear to be breathing."

Although Armstrong arguably posed a danger to others at first because it seemed he might run into traffic, the 4th Circuit said, that was no longer the case by the time he had sat down and wrapped himself around the post, which was when police decided to repeatedly shock him with a Taser in "drive stun" mode, hoping that the "excruciating pain" would encourage compliance. "Rather than have its desired effect," the court observed, "the tasing actually increased Armstrong's resistance." It noted that the weapon's manufacturer says police should "avoid using repeated drive-stuns on such individuals if compliance is not achieved."

The 4th Circuit had little trouble concluding, based on the facts as presented by Armstrong's family, that police violated his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights by using more force than was justified in the circumstances. "When Officer Gatling deployed his taser," it said, "Armstrong was a mentally ill man being seized for his own protection, was seated on the ground, was hugging a post to ensure his immobility, was surrounded by three police officers and two hospital security guards, and had failed to submit to a lawful seizure for only 30 seconds. A reasonable officer would have perceived a static stalemate with few, if any, exigencies—not an immediate danger so severe that the officer must beget the exact harm the seizure was intended to avoid."

As a general rule, the 4th Circuit said, a Taser "may only be deployed when a police officer is confronted with an exigency that creates an immediate safety risk and that is reasonably likely to be cured by using the taser." It added that "the subject of a seizure does not create such a risk simply because he is doing something that can be characterized as resistance." Furthermore, "Erratic behavior and mental illness do not necessarily create a safety risk either. To the contrary, when a seizure is intended solely to prevent a mentally ill individual from harming himself, the officer effecting the seizure has a lessened interest in deploying potentially harmful force."

The court nevertheless upheld a judge's ruling that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity because at the time of the incident "Armstrong's right not to be tased while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to a lawful seizure was not clearly established." Now it is.

Under the rule enunciated by the 4th Circuit, a state trooper who pulled a car over for a minor traffic violation presumably would not be justified in using a Taser to force the driver out her car after she declined to extinguish her cigarette. Nor would a Border Patrol agent be allowed to shock an unarmed woman who objected when he grabbed her, for no apparent reason, during a random checkpoint stop.

[Thanks to CharlesWT for the tip.]

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  1. It noted that the weapon’s manufacturer says police should “avoid using repeated drive-stuns on such individuals if compliance is not achieved.”

    So…it is a compliance tool? I thought the cops said it was a less-than-lethal tool for stopping people. But…the cops would never lie!

    1. Or the manufacturer adjusted their literature to keep a lucrative market open and protected from litigation.

      1. So…it is a compliance tool?

        1. It is now.

          1. (tases NutraSweet)

            Ok, good.

        2. You can’t spell “compliance” without “liance”, and it takes two to lie – one to tell the lie and one to believe it.

        3. And a floor wax!

          1. (tases JW)

            That’ll be enough of that!

            1. [gasping]…and…a dessert topping….! [collapses]

              1. (drive stuns JW)

                I said enough!

                1. [wheezes]…mangled…*cough*…baby… [cringes]…DUCKS… [dies]

    2. The ‘drive stun’ capability on police tasers is specifically designed as a pain compliance tool. It doesn’t have the same effect as the muscular interruption/incapacitation of the barbs (I think it’s because the electrodes are too close together to affect more than local muscles, but I am probably wrong).

  2. Some years back my niece was driving along on a rainy evening and as she went around a curve her car got sideways and she wound up in the ditch after smacking a mailbox. The cop who showed up issued her a ticket for traveling too fast for conditions. She was so pissed off – the speed limit was 45 and she was only doing 45. It did no good to try to explain to her that “traveling too fast for conditions” is a sort of tautological statement – “too fast” is “a speed such that when you go around a curve, your car’s gonna get sideways and you’re going to wind up in a ditch after smacking a mailbox”. How the hell can you argue you weren’t going too fast? You lost control of the car and ran into the ditch fer chrissake! That’s what “too fast” means!

    Did the cops use excessive force? If you define “excessive force”, as you should, as “a force such that somebody winds up injured or dead who shouldn’t have wound up injured or dead” I don’t see how you can argue with that. But of course, it’s not like us mundanes are ever the ones being charged with the “excessive force” so the rules that apply to us don’t apply to the sorts of people who do face the “excessive force” issue.

    1. The cop who showed up issued her a ticket for traveling too fast for conditions.

      “Here’s someone who needs help. Let’s see if I can make their day worse.”

    2. Did the cops use excessive force?

      Did they? My god, man! He was hugging a stop sign! There’s no telling of how much paint he could scrape off with his skin!

      All they had to do is wait the guy out or wait for a family member to get their to talk him down. But no, the uniformed baboons got the troop all riled up, hooting and hollering about the failure to respect author-i-tie.

      1. Anyone who thinks the pigs aren’t chomping at the bit to use those fucking things on people is out of their mind.

  3. They ain’t got time to not taze.

    Add ” incompetently impatient” to the list of failures of the troops of baboons now employed as LEOs.

  4. “During the struggle,” the court noted, “Armstrong complained that he was being choked.”

    Were the cops wearing their I Can Breath #CopLivesMatter T-shirts at the time, or are those just for the after-party.

  5. Obey or die.

  6. “the subject of a seizure does not create such a risk simply because he is doing something that can be characterized as resistance.”

    Does not compute. Anything is permissible to overcome the slightest resistance.

    Do you hate cops or something?

  7. When the cops rolled him over, they found that “his skin had turned a bluish color, and he did not appear to be breathing.”

    So he died from lack of oxygen to the brain. How is this the fault of the cops?

    1. Just like that homeless guy the cops stomped to death, right?

      The fact that he didn’t die of the injuries they inflicted until a few days later has been cited repeatedly in defense of the cops.

        1. They were just helping him along, one kick at a time.

  8. “This week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the police who protected Armstrong to death used excessive force during the 2011 incident?in particular, by shocking him with a stun gun five times in two minutes in a vain attempt to disengage him from a stop sign post to which he was clinging with his arms and legs.”

    He would have had to let go eventually. What, they didn’t want to have to wait and miss their lunch break?

    1. Failure to obey is a sign that someone is armed and ready to kill a cop. At least that’s how cops are trained. So when someone fails to obey, the cops are trained to react as if their life is in danger. I wish I was kidding.

      1. Yeah, they need to fix that.

        Holding onto a stop sign doesn’t put anyone’s life in danger.

        1. As far as cops are concerned, failure to obey puts everyone’s life in danger. Someone who fails to obey does not have the proper respect for authority, so who knows what else they may be up to? If they do not obey a command from a police officer, then what other laws are they breaking? They are probably armed and planning to kill a bunch of cops. Until they are subdued or dead, there is no way to know for sure. Besides, killing defenseless peasants has always been a favorite pastime for the king’s men.

          1. Civil disobedience is still disobedience . . .

            Bonk, Bonk on the head!

  9. “The examining doctor filled out a form identifying Armstrong as a danger to himself and called police to capture him.”

    Incidentally, one of the things that’s wrong with the idea of keeping a list of people who’ve been admitted to psychiatric facilities and checking that list when doing background checks for firearm purchases is that you’re essentially deferring to the arbitrary judgments of psychiatrists as to who is “a threat to themselves or others”.

    Those judgments aren’t only influenced by arbitrary psychological concepts either–what’s the difference between someone suicidal and clinically anxious and depressed and some guy that feels like he wants to die because his girlfriend dumped him? Those judgments are also influenced by things like the ability to pay (if you have great insurance, you’re more likely to be admitted) and liability concerns (if I as a psychiatrist don’t hold this guy for observation and he hurts somebody, will I get sued?).

    Never mind whether committing people under such a system is just–why would we use a list of people who’ve been admitted in such an arbitrary way to psychiatric care to disqualify people forever from exercising their Second Amendment rights?

    1. And how much of an “examination” was involved? How much was CYA by the doctor and/or facility? Do they have a standard policy to label anyone who leaves without permission as requiring police intervention?
      These issues are bad enough in the short term, but significant in attempts to deprive a person of their rights years later.

      1. “These issues are bad enough in the short term, but significant in attempts to deprive a person of their rights years later.”

        Exactly.

        It’s the same kind of thing with guys that get slapped with protection orders.

        Making violent threats is a crime, and being convicted of it by a jury means a judge should rule that you forfeited your right to own a gun–just like they effectively do with someone duly convicted of armed robbery.

        If someone is arrested for spousal abuse or making violent threats, maybe a defendant might choose to waive his second amendment rights at arraignment when bail is set–just like they sometimes waive the right to a jury trial, etc. If the situation warrants it, maybe a judge suspends someone’s right to bear arms pending a trial . . .

        But depriving people of their second amendment rights without a jury or a trial–just because what they were accused of landed them on some federal list–is an injustice in all sorts of ways.

  10. The examining doctor filled out a form identifying Armstrong as a danger to himself

    If the doc didn’t certify him as a danger to others, I can’t see any basis for the use of force against the guy. He had neither committed nor been accused of any crime.

    1. I can only speak from my experience documenting this stuff working at a mental hospital in California.

      There, they can hold you for 72 hours for observation (the infamous 5150) if you’re considered either a danger to yourself or others.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ 5150_(involuntary_psychiatric_hold)

      Incidentally, the cops can take you to a mental hospital and have you held under a 5150, too. I think that’s considered kinder than taking someone to county jail.

      After 72 hours, if the hospital wants to keep you for longer than that, a representative of the court comes to the hospital for something like a hearing to determine whether you’re still a danger to yourself or others. They look at your records, and the judge makes a decision based on the recommendation of that court representative–and that’s when commitment happens.

      1. In CA, the gun reporting only occurs after that probable cause hearing, and only if the patient loses and the involuntary hold continues. So the commitment decision is up to a hearing officer/judge, NOT a psychiatrist.

        Also, if you sign yourself into the hospital voluntarily, you are not reported to the state.

        The involuntary hold hearing is usually 4-5 days after hospitalization, so the inappropriate hold on a non-dangerous person should never get that far.

        1. In California right now that may be the way reporting works, but the gun grabbers are pushing a new agenda federally–and that would supersede what’s happening now.

    2. “If the doc didn’t certify him as a danger to others”

      Somebody slashes their wrists or has to be talked down off a ledge, I don’t have any problem with them holding that person for 72 hours for observation.

      The statistic I used to see thrown around was that some 70% of the people who attempt suicide and survive are glad they survived a year after the attempt.

      And it’s not like the other 30% won’t be free to try again someday just because they’re held for observation for 72 hours.

      Underneath it all, I’m not sure that people who try to kill themselves aren’t willingly forgoing the right to make choices for themselves for a certain period of time. I’d argue that mental health professionals should be given the least amount of time necessary to diagnose and stabilize such a patient and that 72 hours seems like it’s about the least amount of time necessary.

  11. Jesus H Christ, the Officer’s name is GATLING?! You can’t make this shit up.

    1. Not surprising. Common name in North Carolina, where the story takes place. Richard Gatling, who invented the Gatling gun, was from North Carolina

      There’s also a scholarship at NC State University for people with the last name Gatlin or Gatling, endowed by a John Gatling of Raleigh. Seriously.

      1. Way to take away my thunder, JT.

      2. “One day while he workin’, the Gatlin boys came callin’
        They took turns at Becky
        (And there was three of them)”

  12. What’s sad is that there is a compliance tool specifically designed to handle such issues: the Kubotan. When I was in the Navy, a shipmate of mine went to the Shore Patrol school and was taught how to use one. It’s just a simple little stick really, applied to pressure points. It isn’t hard to use at all, particularly for a case where the person isn’t attacking you but rather is clinging to a post or whatever and refusing to come along. It causes pain but doesn’t do any particular damage–especially compared to a device designed to deliver electric shocks!

    There are also joint manipulation techniques that can be used. Why the fuck don’t they train police officers properly anymore?

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  15. The court nevertheless upheld a judge’s ruling that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity because at the time of the incident “Armstrong’s right not to be tased while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to a lawful seizure was not clearly established.” Now it is.

    GAH! Stealth nutpunch! This article was going so well, until this! :-/

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