Federal court in California limits police use of Tasers
The appeals court ruling could raise the bar for when the electric stun-guns can be deployed. Local police departments said the ruling puts officers' lives in danger.
In a decision that could alter how law enforcement agencies nationwide use stun guns, a federal appeals court panel this week ruled that a California police officer was not immune from civil litigation resulting from questionable use of the controversial weapon.Skip to next paragraph
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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday removed a legal roadblock holding up a lawsuit against Coronado, Calif., police officer Brian McPherson, who fired his Taser stun gun at motorist Carl Bryan after a 2005 traffic stop.
Mr. Bryan sued Officer McPherson, the Coronado Police Department, and the City of Coronado for excessive force, assault, and infliction of emotional stress. A lower court ruled that Coronado and its police department were immune from the case but not the officer because he used the electroshock weapon in a way that appeared to be unreasonable and unlawful. The appeals court affirmed that ruling.
If the ruling is not overturned by the US Supreme Court, it could change how as many as 11,500 US law enforcement agencies currently use their stun guns. Many agencies, according to experts, give officers wide latitude in determining the appropriate use of the weapons. The ruling now raises the bar for when the weapons can be deployed, stating that while stun guns are considered nonlethal weapons, they dispense a level of force that must be justified by a “strong government interest.”
The use of stun guns should be limited to situations where there is "an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public," wrote Judge Kim Wardlaw, who penned the court's opinion.
What justifies use of a Taser?
In an earlier case, the US Supreme Court said three factors determine "government interest:" the severity of the crime, whether the suspect posed a serious threat to officer safety, and whether the suspect was evading or resisting arrest.
The traffic stop involving McPherson and Bryan didn’t meet any of those standards, the Ninth Circuit court found.
There’s no question, the court said, that Bryan was acting erratic and irrational after McPherson stopped him for not wearing his seatbelt. He was dressed only in boxer shorts and shoes, and was yelling and hitting himself. But the court found he still didn’t pose enough of a threat to the officer to justify the use of the Taser gun.
“Officer McPherson stopped Bryan for the most minor of offenses. There was no reasonable basis to conclude that Bryan was armed. He was twenty feet away and did not physically confront the officer,” Judge Wardlaw wrote, adding, “The facts suggest that Bryan was not even facing Officer McPherson when he was shot. A reasonable officer in these circumstances would have known that it was unreasonable to deploy intermediate force.”