Circuit Court Restricts Taser Use

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Jinia Armstrong Lopez was worried that her brother Ronald Armstrong might be a danger to himself. Armstrong had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, was off his medication, and was poking holes in his leg "to let the air out." She tried to have him admitted into a hospital, but when he fled, a doctor drafted involuntary commitment papers and the police were dispatched to make sure he didn't hurt himself.

The officers succeeded, but not in the way anyone imagined. Armstrong never had the opportunity to do himself harm because mere minutes after the commitment papers were finalized, Armstrong was declared dead after officers Tased him five times and forcefully restrained him.

Excessive and Unreasonable

That, according the United States Fourth Circuit Court, was a violation of Armstrong's constitutional rights. "The degree of force necessary to prevent an individual who is affirmatively refusing to move from fleeing is obviously quite limited," Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote. "Immediately Tasing a non-criminal, mentally ill individual, who seconds before had been conversational, was not a proportional response."

The court singled out one officer's use of the Taser to get Armstrong to the hospital:

"When Officer Gatling deployed his taser, 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."

Qualified and Immune

The officers in this case, however, will not be punished (at least by the court). The Fourth Circuit ruled they are covered by "qualified immunity" which means public officials cannot be sued unless they violated an individual's "clearly established" statutory or constitutional rights.

While the officers involved "were treading close to the constitutional line," the court held that they "did not have sufficiently clear guidance to forfeit qualified immunity" because the law regarding the use of Tasers was still evolving. The court hoped this decision would lend some clarity to things, and ruled that 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."

The decision is little help to Ronald Armstrong and little comfort to his sister Jinia. But hopefully it will save someone else's life in the future.

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