In what could be a landmark decision, a federal appeals court has handed down a ruling that could lead to new limits on police use of tasers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco says officers can be held liable for their use of taser weapons and allows a man to pursue a lawsuit against an officer.
The court decision stems from a 2005 incident, in which an officer tasered a man after pulling him over for not wearing a seatbelt, the end of what the court called a "bad morning" for Carl Bryan. The then 21-year-old Bryan spent a night in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, and promised to drive his brother home near San Diego the next day.
When he woke up, Bryan realized someone took his keys to Los Angeles. So wearing just the t-shirt and boxer shorts he slept in, Bryan got a ride to LA, retrieved his keys, and went back to Ventura to get his brother.
On the ride down south, he was pulled over twice, once for speeding, the second time for not wearing his seatbelt. The judge wrote that Bryan was clearly agitated during the second stop, at one point hitting the steering wheel and cursing at himself.
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He then got out of the car, and was “yelling gibberish and hitting his thighs, clad only in boxers and tennis shoes,” while Coronado police officer Brian McPherson stood 20 to 25 feet away, the judge wrote. Bryan reportedly made no threats to the officer and did not attempt to escape.
The officer testified that he had told Bryan to stay in the car and that Bryan had taken “one step” toward him. Bryan denied both statements.
Then “without giving any warning, Officer McPherson shot Bryan with a Taser,” the judge wrote. Bryan, who according to physical evidence was facing away from the officer, fell on his face as 50,000 volts of electricity ran through his body. Four teeth shattered when he hit the pavement.
Bryan was hospitalized and charged with resisting an officer in performance of his duties. The case ended with a hung jury, and the charge was dismissed.
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Bryan then sued the city of Coronado and McPherson for excessive force, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The appeals court denied McPherson's request for immunity and allowed the case to continue.
But the case could have far-reaching effects for police departments all over the country. They could have to change their policies to allow the use of such devices only when there is an immediate threat to officers.
Many departments already have such rules in place. But with an estimated 17,000 departments in the U.S. using tasers, many do not have guidelines.
University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey Albert, who recently completed a four-year study of tasers for the Justice Department, told The New York Times this case “is going to impact a lot of departments that have not changed their standards.”