Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst: Instructions on TASER® Use

On January 11, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued an important opinion for LEOs regarding the use of TASER® devices and other conducted energy weapons. The case involved an mentally ill man who left a hospital after a doctor determined he was a danger to himself. The police found the subject who was eating grass, chewing a gauze like substance, putting cigarettes out on his tongue, and had been walking around in traffic. The LEOs spoke with the man and kept him from moving back into traffic. When they received word that the committal order had been signed, they approached the man to take him into custody and back to the hospital for treatment.

As they approached, the man held tightly to a sign post refusing to release it. The LEOs attempted to break his grip then deployed a TASER® in drive stun mode five times over a period of approximately two minutes. They were able to remove the man from the pole. He was still resisting after the pole was removed from the equation and the LEOs reported kneeling and standing on his back to restrain him in handcuffs and leg restraints. A short time later, the man was unresponsive and although the LEOs administered CPR, he expired. You can read a local news article on PoliceOne here.

The appellate court examined the use of the TASER® as well as whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity as the lower court ruled. The appellate court penned a long opinion that is quite instructive for LEOs. The court, in finding the use of the TASER® to be excessive force, held that LEOs were not authorized under the Fourth Amendment to use a TASER® to subdue a subject who did not pose a threat to anyone but himself and the use of a TASER® must be justified by the articulation of some immediate risk of harm or danger to the LEOs. A quote from the opinion sums up the case well: “Physical resistance is not synonymous with an immediate risk of danger.”

The court still dismissed the case against the LEOs on the grounds of qualified immunity holding that the law in the Fourth Circuit on these facts was not clearly established at the time, but gave warning stating, “While qualified immunity shields the officers in this case from liability, law enforcement officers should now be on notice that such taser use violates the Fourth Amendment.” This is an instructive case on the law and contains a lot of analysis including recommendations from the device manufacturer. However, the most important parts of the case is a window into the beliefs of this appellate court and others regarding the use of a TASER® and setting a standard that the TASER® must be used only in the face of some immediate risk of harm to the LEO or presumably others. Stay safe.

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