Cops Get Immunity After Tasing Man Suffering Mental Illness

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on January 15, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fourth Circuit's Court of Appeals laid down clear law in ruling that the police may only use their tasers against persons who pose an "immediate safety risk."

Unfortunately, this law came a little too late for Ronald Armstrong, a mentally ill man who was accidentally killed by police who'd hoped the "excruciating pain" would produce a desired effect of "compliance."

"Let the Air Out"

Ronald Armstrong was a mentally ill man. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. After he stopped taking medication to control his mental condition, he started poking holes in his legs "to let the air out."

Don't You See the Stop Sign?

His sister convinced him to consider institutionalizing himself at a North Carolina hospital where he was initially cooperative, but then soon fled. In the ensuing chaos, Armstrong made his way to a stop sign and clung to it. The police tased Armstrong five times within a two minute time span in an attempt to coax him off of the sign post. Finally, they pulled him off the sign, pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him.

The court noted that Armstrong complained of being choked. When the police stood up to collect themselves, his sister noticed that Armstrong was not moving. He died of asphyxiation.

On Excessive Force

The circuit was quick to conclude that under the circumstances, the police used excessive force against Armstrong and that his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated.

In a word, a reasonable officer would have perceived a "static stalemate" which would have presented no immediate exigencies of danger. With regards to tasers, "erratic behavior and mental illness do not necessarily create a safety risk" justifying immediate use of a taser. In fact, the use of the taser should be used with the aim of preventing a mentally ill person from harming himself.

In the case at hand, the police were excessive in their force because Armstrong essentially clung to the stop sign and was not going anywhere.

Qualified Immunity

Armstrong's right not to be tased while offering no resistance had not been clearly established up this point. For this reason, the police enjoyed qualified immunity from suit. It is unfortunate that new law had to be established with the passing of someone's life, particularly when the usual rule regarding "reasonable police behavior" may have easily controlled in this case.

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