Police Tasers: excessive force or necessary tool?
A crop of legal cases across the US raise concerns over the use of electric stun guns in routine police stops.
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"In the end it is all going to come down to a question of reasonableness under the circumstances," Mr. Jolly says. "If a reasonable person would think that use of force is going to accomplish a lawful objective and make it less likely that somebody gets hurt, they can do it."Skip to next paragraph
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The tasing of Jesse Buckley
The Florida case involves a motorist named Jesse Buckley who was pulled over for speeding on a remote Florida highway in March 2004.
Mr. Buckley was issued a traffic ticket, but became distraught and refused to sign it. Washington County Deputy Sheriff Jonathan Rackard placed Buckley under arrest, cuffing his hands behind his back. As instructed, the motorist exited his car and headed toward the patrol car.
Before he reached the cruiser, Buckley collapsed to the ground. The encounter was captured on the video camera mounted on the dashboard of Mr. Rackard's cruiser. The video has been posted on the Internet.
The deputy tried to lift Buckley, but he went limp and started sobbing. Buckley was warned that if he didn't get up he would be shocked with a Taser.
"I don't care anymore," Buckley said. "Tase me."
The deputy tased him three times before backup arrived, and the two officers walked Buckley to the patrol car.
Photos of Buckley's body later revealed 16 burn marks.
Buckley filed a lawsuit against the deputy for excessive use of force by a police officer. A federal judge refused to throw out the lawsuit, but a divided panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sided with the deputy. The suit was dismissed.
"The government has an interest in arrests being completed efficiently and without waste of limited resources," wrote Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson in the 2-to-1 decision. "Even though [the motorist] was handcuffed, he still refused repeatedly to comply with the most minimal of police instructions – that is, to stand up and to walk to the patrol car."
In a dissent, District Judge Beverly Martin said that "no reasonable officer could have believed that the force used by [the deputy] was necessary in response to the situation at hand."
Judge Martin added: "The question in this case is whether a taser gun may be used repeatedly against a peaceful individual as a pain-compliance device – that is, as an electric prod – to force him to comply with an order to move."
Courts loath to second-guess police
"It isn't hard to envision police officers dealing with anti-abortion protesters or civil rights protesters – pick your political issue," he says. "There is nothing in this decision that forbids police officers from using tasers to break that up."
Jolly views the case differently. He says police officers face an array of dangers during roadside stops and that it is wrong to second-guess split second judgments after the fact.
"This guy could turn from sobbing basket-case into a raging wild man at the snap of a finger. That officer is in a surprisingly difficult situation," Jolly says.
Mr. Masinter disagrees. "Mr. Buckley was no threat to anybody," he says. "There was no active resistance here and therefore no authority to use this kind of force."
Jolly says the courts – including the Supreme Court – are generally reluctant to second-guess a police officer acting alone in a potentially dangerous situation. "In baseball, all ties go to the runner," he says. "In federal civil rights litigation against individual officers, all doubts go to the officer. Close calls are his."