An examination of legal cases involving the use of Tasers and stun guns on pretrial detainees.
Stun guns are weapons similar to Tasers. The stun gun is "an electrical self-defense device which sends out 50,000 volts to the body when pressed against the skin" (Kornblum and Reddy, 1991). Although it is commonly believed that Tasers and stun guns discharge 50,000 volts of electricity to the body, that may not be the case. According to Williams (2008), both the M26 and the X26 Tasers have 50,000 peak open circuit voltage at the main capacitator that allows a spark to go through a gap between clothing and a person's body. However, he asserts that the weapons do not deliver 50,000 volts into a person's body. Williams (2008) claims that once the weapon is applied to the body and the spark crosses a gap, the TASER M26 model delivers a peak loaded voltage of 5,000 volts, and the TASER X26 model delivers a peak loaded voltage of 1,200 volts. The 50,000 peak open circuit voltage at the main capacitator is used to produce a spark of a lesser voltage that is applied to a person's body. Tasers and stun guns cause victims to lose control of their muscles, collapse and remain immobile for a few minutes. The primary difference between the Taser and the stun gun is that the latter must be placed next to the subject's skin, while the former can be fired from up to a distance of 25 feet (Kornblum and Reddy, 1991; Williams, 2008).
Excessive use of force is embedded in the correctional officer subculture (Marquart, 1986). During the hands-off era courts were reluctant to try or decide cases filed by prisoners. The position of the courts during this era is best reflected in an infamous Virginia Court decision, Ruffin v. Commonwealth (1871), where an inmate was declared to be a "slave of the state." This changed with the coming of the hands-on era between the late 1960s and early 1970s when issues like equal protection and due process revolutionized the attitude of the courts. Since this time, use-of-force lawsuits have become a major part of all inmate litigation (Robertson, 2006).
While there has been at least some discussion devoted to the use of electronic energy devices by law enforcement officers, very few studies have exclusively examined the use of these devices on pretrial detainees in jail settings. Unlike inmates who have already been convicted, pretrial detainees are presumed innocent, and they therefore retain their constitutional right to be free from punishment even though they are confined (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979). While the excessive force claims of inmates are examined under the Eighth Amendment, those for pretrial detainees are usually governed by: the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard, as established in Graham v. Connor (1989); the governmental policy or custom standard, as established in Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York (1978); and the failure to adequately train standard under City of Canton v. Harris (1989). This article explores jail officer liabilities for the use of Tasers and stun guns with regard to pretrial detainees.
A Primer on the Rights of Detainees
As Rosen (1990) writes, in the landmark case Bell v. Wolfish, "the Supreme Court for the first time explored the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees as a distinct group and articulated the principles that presently govern constitutional claims of jail inmates." The court ruled in Bell v. Wolfish (1979) that pretrial detainees retain their constitutional protections under the Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendments, despite their confinement. This is because these detainees have not been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, pretrial detainees are held on the basis of probable cause that they have committed the crimes for which they have been arrested. This is not the same as being proved guilty; therefore, pretrial detainees retain most of their constitutional rights. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed out that "[a] detainee simply does not possess the full range of freedoms of an unincarcerated individual" (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979). Most pretrial detainees are placed in jail to ensure their presence at trial rather than to punish them (Rosen, 1990).
In the Bell case, pretrial detainees at the New York City Metropolitan Correctional Center filed a suit alleging that their constitutional rights had been violated because the facility had been filled beyond its capacity and single bunks were replaced by double bunks in the cells and dormitories. The detainees alleged that their constitutional rights were violated because of crowding, undue length of confinement, improper searches, inadequate recreational facilities and lack of educational and employment opportunities. The court held that double-bunking, body-cavity searches and searches of detainees' quarters in their absence did not deprive pretrial detainees of their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The court ruled, absent a showing of an expressed intent to punish, if a particular condition or restriction is reasonably related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental objective, it does not amount to punishment and hence does not violate a pretrial detainee's due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. In fact, the core distinction between detainees and inmates with regard to their constitutional rights is that under the due process clause, detainees may not be punished without a prior adjudication of guilt (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979).
In Turner v. Safley (1987), the Supreme Court ruled that in order to determine if a prison regulation that burdens constitutional rights is valid, a court has to examine whether it is reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives or whether it represents an exaggerated response to those concerns. In Turner, state inmates brought a class-action suit challenging regulations of the Missouri Division of Corrections that restricted inmate-to-inmate correspondence and allowed inmates to marry only if there were compelling reasons to do so. The court laid down a four-pronged test to determine reasonableness:
* There must be a valid rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put for ward to justify it;
* Whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remains open to prison in mates;
* The impact that accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on correctional officers and other inmates and on the allocation of resources generally; and
* The absence of ready alternatives to the prison regulation.
Accordingly, the court ruled that while the inmate-to-inmate correspondence was reasonably related to legitimate security concerns, the inmate marriage regulation was not related to any legitimate penological objective.
In Hause v. Vaught (1993), the 4th Circuit applied Turner v. Safley (1987) to pretrial detainees as the "Turner test still remains the default standard in First Amendment cases" (Robertson, 2007). In this case, Hause challenged the detention center's policy that did not allow detainees to receive books and periodicals in the mail as an infringement of his First Amendment rights. The policy was put in place to prevent the smuggling of contraband. Hause argued that receiving material sent by publishers provided an easy alternative. The 4th Circuit ruled that considering the brief period of time that detainees are confined, publications are likely to arrive in most cases after the detainee has been transferred to other facilities, thus causing an unnecessary administrative burden on the jail officers. Moreover, even though a publisher-only rule would prevent the smuggling of contraband, publications could still be used to start fires, the court pointed out. Applying Turner, the court ruled that the detention center's ban on outside publications was reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.
A standard for individual jail officer liability that is applied in cases of pretrial detainees by lower courts was set by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989). In this case, there was evidence that Graham was physically hurt by law enforcement officers during an investigatory stop. Graham was a diabetic suffering from an insulin reaction. During the traffic stop, Graham passed out briefly, and one of the officers who arrived at the scene rolled Graham over on the sidewalk and cuffed his hands tightly behind his back, ignoring the pleas of Graham's friend that he was diabetic. (1) During the encounter, Graham sustained a broken foot, cuts on his wrists, a bruised forehead and an injured shoulder. Thereafter, Graham filed a Section 1983 action, claiming his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The court ruled that excessive force claims against the police should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard, not the 14th Amendment's substantive due process standard. Under objective reasonableness, the question is what an ordinary prudent police officer at the scene would have done in the same or similar situation. Because the standard for liability is objective reasonableness, not subjective reasonableness, the specific officer's mindset at the scene is irrelevant. The court held that the relevant inquiry focuses on what the hypothetical reasonable officer with the proper training, experience and foresight would have done. Although they are confined, pretrial detainees retain their constitutional rights and, hence, the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard affords protection to them.
Departmental liability for the use of Tasers and stun guns against detainees is deficient policy, procedure and custom, leading to constitutional deprivations. Lower courts have followed Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York (1978), which established that a Monell violation occurs when an agency articulates an official policy and that policy causes constitutional injury. In addition, nonofficial customs and procedures have the same weight as official policies when causing constitutional violations. In this case, female employees of the Department of Social Services and the Board of Education of the City of New York objected to official policies that required pregnant employees to take unpaid leaves of absence before those leaves were required for medical reasons. The district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit found the policy unconstitutional, but denied claims for back pay. The Supreme Court observed that the touchstone for a Section 1983 action to succeed against a governmental entity is that the official policy must be responsible for the constitutional deprivation. In Monell, the deprivation arose out of an official policy; thus, the local government was held liable. Monell was highly significant because it opened the liability floodgates for lawsuits against cities and counties (del Carmen, 1991; Kappeler, 2001).
Failure to adequately train jail officers may result in governmental liability, especially for the use of Tasers and stun guns. The Supreme Court's leading case on failure to train is City of Canton v. Harris (1989). The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the training program provided by the city of Canton, Ohio, to its police officers was adequate. In this case, the facts showed that Geraldine Harris was in need of medical attention when she was arrested and taken to jail. Harris was found sitting on the floor of the patrol wagon, she slumped to the floor twice inside the station, and after her release from police custody without any medical care Harris was taken by an ambulance (provided by her family) to a nearby hospital. There, Harris was diagnosed with several emotional ailments, resulting in hospitalization for one week and outpatient treatment for a year. Harris sued under the legal theory that a person has a right to receive medical attention while in police custody. Citing Monell's rule, that a city may be liable under Section 1983 when policies or customs cause constitutional deprivations, the court held that the training provided to the city's police officers was clearly inadequate. The court ruled that such lawsuits can only yield liability against a municipality when the city's failure to train reflects deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of its inhabitants.
Despite most courts following the objective reasonableness standard laid down by Graham, some courts have refused to apply this standard to pretrial detainees. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals observed, "The point at which Fourth Amendment protections end and Fourteenth Amendment protections begin is often murky" (Orem v. Rephann, 2008). According to the 4th Circuit, once arrested, the Fourth Amendment protections cease and the 14th Amendment due process clause applies (Orem v. Rephann, 2008). Courts have also used the de minimis injury standard to Find jail officer's liable. Where the injury is de minimis, officers cannot be found liable (Valentine v. Richardson, 2008).
A sample of 19 cases on jail officers' use of Taser and stun guns under Section 1983 is examined in this paper. The cases were obtained by cross-referencing Westlaw Campus and LexisNexis. Searches were performed on the terms "taser" "Section 1983," "jail" and "stun gun." The search terms were executed for all federal cases. Not all the cases returned by the searches were Taseror stun-gun-related cases. These were immediately eliminated from further consideration in this analysis. Additionally, cases that involved Tasers or stun guns but did not relate to jail officers were not considered in this analysis. The researchers systematically examined the summaries of each of the cases returned by the searches to select the appropriate ones for this study. So far, none of the cases has reached the Supreme Court. The cases examined in this article are lower federal court cases decided in the U.S. District Courts and U.S. Courts of Appeals. They are broadly divided into cases in which the courts ruled against jail officers at this stage of the proceedings and cases in which they ruled in favor of jail officers.
Court Rulings Against Jail Officers
Excessive use of force: Objective reasonableness standards and conflicting versions of events. Tasering of an arrested person by police officers for being verbally unruly and refusing to wear a jail uniform is objectively unreasonable. In Stephens v. City of Butler, Alabama (2007), an arrestee was tasered four times by two police officers after he was brought to jail. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama applied the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard to this case as the plaintiff, a pretrial detainee, was under the control of the police officers who were making the arrest report. Applying Graham, the court looked at the reason for the application of the Taser. Although the plaintiff was charged with running over senior citizens and handicapped persons in his vehicle, the event that triggered the tasering was the plaintiffs refusal to wear a jail uniform. Considering the second factor (2) laid down by Graham, the District Court observed that the plaintiff did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others. He was unarmed and confined in a small room in the jail surrounded by three police officers. Third, the plaintiff was not actively resisting arrest nor was he attempting to flee from the interior room of the jail. Examining the totality of the circumstances, the court ruled that repeatedly applying a Taser on an unarmed person in police custody, surrounded by three police officers within the confines of a jail was "objectively unreasonable and excessive, particularly where the use of force was over something as minor as being verbally unruly and refusing to don jail garb." The plaintiff after all had made no effort to escape and was posing no threat to the safety of any officer. Accordingly, the District Court refused to grant summary judgment to the defendants.
Although the Supreme Court is not clear at which point after arrest the Fourth Amendment ceases to protect an individual, the 6th Circuit has held that the protection extends to the entire time the individual is in the custody of the arresting officers (McDowell v. Rogers, 1988). In Harris v. City of Circleville (2008), Harris, a pretrial detainee, sustained a spinal cord injury while being booked at the Circleville Jail. Passively resisting the officers, Harris refused to allow them to take away his belongings. Once Harris was on the ground, the officers used Tasers on his back. He could not move. The officers ignored his protests and removed the arrestee's belongings from his person. Harris was left on the floor for 80 minutes, after which he was taken to a hospital. He underwent surgery, but there was permanent injury to his spinal cord. Harris filed a Section 1983 action for excessive use of force against the officers. Since Harris was injured at the very beginning of the booking process in the presence of the arresting officers, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio held that Harris' excessive force claim would be governed by the Fourth Amendment. Applying Graham to this case, the court found that the actions of the officers were objectively unreasonable. The court observed that Harris was not accused of a serious crime. He did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others and was already handcuffed and inside a jail cell surrounded by several officers. Although Harris was verbally protesting, there was no evidence showing that he was violent or combative. Ruling the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity, the court cited McDowell (1988), where the 6th Circuit held that the need for force is nonexistent when a handcuffed arrestee is not trying to escape or hurt anyone.
Whenever a plaintiff alleges that he or she presented no threat and that the use of force on the plaintiff was excessive, while the defendant claims that the force used was as per departmental policies, there are genuine issues of material fact, and summary judgment cannot be granted. Issues of material fact exist when there is a dispute about important facts of the case; that is, when the two parties have different versions of the relevant events. Summary judgment is usually granted when there are no factual disputes and the parties agree as to the relevant facts of the case. Once the court is convinced that there are no factual disputes, it will apply the law and rule on the motion for summary judgment. Such judgments are resorted to for the sake of speedy justice.
In Pipkins v. Pike County, Arkansas (2007), the plaintiff alleged that her constitutional rights were violated while she was incarcerated in the Pike County Jail. At about 1:40 a.m. on the night of the event, the defendants allegedly entered the plaintiffs cell. She was lying on the floor. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants used a Taser on her several times even though she was not presenting any threat. The department conducted an investigation and concluded that the officers were acting as per departmental policies. The plaintiff filed a Section 1983 action for excessive use of force by the defendants. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas applied Kuha v. City of Minnetonka (2004), which held that an excessive force claim is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard. According to Kuha, the relevant inquiry is whether the plaintiff provided sufficient proof to show that the defendant's use of force was objectively unreasonable. In examining the case at hand, the District Court found that the plaintiff did provide documents showing that she was not acting in an uncontrolled or dangerous manner. Moreover, the court found that there were genuine issues of material fact as to the events that led up to the defendants using the Taser on the plaintiff. As such, viewing the plaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court denied summary judgment to the defendants.
Summary judgment cannot be granted when there are genuine issues of material facts. In Ndaula v. Holliday (2007), Ndaula, an immigration and customs enforcement detainee, considered equivalent to a pretrial detainee, alleged that excessive force was used against him by a "gang" of correctional officers when he was in his dorm drinking coffee while two wardens were present. Ndaula claims he was beaten and shocked with a Taser. After the incident, he was denied medical care. Analyzing the facts of the case, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana held that since the affidavits submitted by Ndaula and the medical record reflecting complaints of pain refute the affidavits submitted by the defendants, there are genuine issues of material fact that preclude a summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
Use of force by jail officials against an inmate for being a sex offender is excessive and unreasonable. In Burr v. Hill (2005), Burr was rearrested for failing to register as a sex offender. While Burr was housed in the Dallas County Jail, jail officials double-cuffed his hands behind his back, dragged him through the jail and threatened to use a Taser against him, saying that was the treatment a child molester got in prison. As a result of this incident, Burr suffered from serious injuries for which he had to be taken to the Parkland Hospital. Without judging on the merits, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas determined that Burr had sufficiently stated an excessive force claim against the jail officers. Accordingly, the court allowed Burr to proceed with his excessive force claim.
Where there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether an individual is subjected to use of a Taser inappropriately, summary judgment cannot be granted. In Castaneda v. Douglas County Sheriff's Investigator Rory Planeta (2007), the plaintiff alleged that a Taser was used on him during the booking process at the jail even though he was compliant. Moreover, he was not told that he would be subjected to Taser. The defendants contend that the plaintiff was highly combative during the booking process and was repeatedly warned that a Taser would be used if he did not stop resisting. Once the Taser was used, the plaintiff became compliant and followed orders. The plaintiff filed a Section 1983 action for inappropriate use of the Taser. Looking at the facts of the case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada noted that a material issue of fact existed regarding whether the plaintiff was subjected to use of a Taser inappropriately. Accordingly, the court refused to grant summary judgment to the defendants.
When filing a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force, a plaintiff must specify each individual responsible for the excessive force and show an affirmative link between the injury suffered and that conduct (Rizzo v. Goode, 1976). In Monroe v. Arpaio (2005), Monroe was tasered shortly after he was housed in a jail. Monroe asserts that he sustained scars on his back from the Taser. Monroe filed a Section 1983 action for excessive use of force. The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona acknowledged that given the circumstances, Monroe could have a claim for excessive use of force. However, applying Rizzo, the court noted that for Monroe's claim to survive, he must connect the claim to the named defendants. Accordingly, the court advised Monroe to name the defendants in their individual capacities and mention what each individual did or failed to do.
In Orem v. Rephann (2008), the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals applied the 14th Amendment's due process clause instead of the Fourth Amendment in an excessive use of force claim against Officer Rephann. Orem was arrested for disrupting and assaulting an officer after being served with a family protective order. While Orem was being transported to the West Virginia Regional Jail, Rephann tasered Orem twice, underneath her left breast and on her left inner thigh. During this time, Orem, 27 years old and 100 pounds in weight, was in a police car with handcuffs and a foot restraint device on her. Rephann, on the other hand, weighed 280 pounds. The District Court found the use of force unreasonable and in violation of Orem's Fourth Amendment rights. Accordingly, the court denied summary judgment to Rephann. Rephalm appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Citing Riley v. Dorton (1997), the court pointed out that Fourth Amendment protections did not extend to arrestees and pretrial detainees. Considering the factors laid down in Johnson v. Glick (3) (1973), the 4th Circuit concluded that Rephann's actions were not a good faith attempt to restore order, but unnecessary and wanton.
Court Rulings in Favor of Jail Officers
Actions reasonably related to a legitimate goal. Pretrial detainees are not considered guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and they therefore retain their constitutional right to be free from punishment, even though they are confined (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979). In Davis v. Lancaster County, Nebraska (2007), Davis, a pretrial detainee, was allegedly kicked, punched and tasered while he was taken to his holding cell. The defendants argued that Davis was restrained to maintain order and security at the jail. In Bell v. Wolfish (1979), the Supreme Court recognized that "Ensuring security and order at [an] institution is a permissible nonpunitive objective, whether the facility houses pretrial detainees, convicted inmates, or both." Thus, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska found the defendants' actions reasonably related to furthering a legitimate purpose of maintaining order and security. Accordingly, the defendants were granted summary judgment.
Objective reasonableness, governmental policy or custom, and failure to train standard for pretrial detainees. Excessive force claims of pretrial detainees are examined under the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard. In Bustamante v. Roman (2008), the plaintiff alleged that a Taser was applied by unidentified police officers on his testicles during the course of his arrest, which led to one of his testicles being removed. The plaintiff filed a Section 1983 action against the police. Citing Lolli v. County of Orange (2003), the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona observed that the Fourth Amendment applies to excessive force claims of pretrial detainees. The court observed that the plaintiff failed to allege facts supporting his claim that the force used was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances. He also failed to connect any of the named defendants to the alleged excessive force. Citing Rizzo v. Goode (1976), the court noted that in an action under Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that he or she suffered a specific injury as a result of the conduct of a particular defendant and must allege a link between the alleged injury and conduct of the defendant. Since the plaintiff failed to connect any of the defendants with the alleged injury, the court found that the plaintiff failed to state a claim for violation of his constitutional rights. Hence, the complaint was dismissed.
In Tyson v. Dykes (2007), inmate Tyson claims that he had called the sheriffs office as armed men were chasing him on his property. However, when the officers arrived, they used excessive force against Tyson and arrested him. Tyson filed a Section 1983 suit against the sheriff for tolerating and encouraging civil rights violations by his officers. He alleged that Sheriff Dykes was on notice about the tasering of pretrial detainees but chose to ignore it. Citing Burge v. St. Tammany Parish (2003), the court noted that claims of inadequate training and supervision generally require a showing of more than a single incident (Monell, 1978). The court observed that Tyson has not presented any evidence showing a pattern in Dykes' conduct to defeat his plea for qualified immunity.
If a violation of constitutional rights takes place, it is imperative for a plaintiff to specify whether this act occurred before or after he or she was taken into custody. Accordingly, different legal standards apply. In Poteet v. Polk County, Tennessee (2007), inmate Poteet was tasered by McMinn County officers for giving chase, and Poteet was subsequently hospitalized and incarcerated. The officers stated that Poteet was intoxicated at the time he was booked. In fact, the officer at the county jail could not complete the booking process because of Poteet's drunkenness. Poteet filed a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force in arresting and detaining him, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated. The defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that they were shielded by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee observed that the predicament of the plaintiff at the time of the incident has to be taken into consideration. If the plaintiff was a free person at the time of the incident, the Graham standard would apply for a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. However, if the incident took place while the plaintiff was in custody after conviction, the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause would apply. The court found no evidence to show that Poteet was abused or that there was excessive force used against him. Accordingly, the complaint was dismissed.
The standard that governs excessive force claims for pretrial detainees has not yet been made clear by the 8th Circuit. "Between arrest and sentencing lies something of a legal twilight zone" (Wilson v. Spain, 2000). In McBride v. Clark (2006), officers applied a stun gun to McBride, a pretrial detainee, for creating a disturbance in the detention center. The officers were trained in the use of Tasers and stun guns. McBride filed a Section 1983 suit against the officers for excessive use of force. The parties to the suit disagreed on the appropriate governing standard for the excessive use of force. While McBride contended that the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard applied, the defendant argued that the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishment standard applied. In this case, the plaintiff was being held on warrant for suspicion of drug-related offenses. As such, he was not technically a pretrial detainee. Under such circumstances, the 8th Circuit has applied the Fourth Amendment standard. Accordingly, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Montana applied the Fourth Amendment's objective reasonableness standard. Reviewing the facts of the case, the court observed that McBride was yelling vulgarities and, after being told that he had hepatitis C, he removed his IV and caused himself to bleed. Under the circumstances, the officer's action was objectively reasonable.
The use of stun guns by prison officials to subdue a violent pretrial detainee does not violate the detainee's constitutional rights. In Birdine v. Gray (2005), Birdine, a pretrial detainee, was incarcerated at the Lancaster County Jail. Due to violent behavior toward correctional officers, a stun gun was applied to Birdine on two occasions by an officer trained in its use. Birdine was first shocked soon after he was taken to a cell in the holding area. As the officers tried to take off his handcuffs, he started resisting them physically. Birdine was shocked a second time immediately after the officers left his cell in the holding area. He created a disturbance by banging and kicking the door. He refused to follow instructions and was attempting to destroy the light fixture in his cell. At that point, officers trained in the use of stun guns shocked Birdine for the second time in order to subdue him. Birdine filed a Section 1983 suit against the officers for excessive use of force. Citing Jasper v. Thalacker (1993), the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska concluded that the use of stun guns on Birdine did not violate the Constitution. Moreover, the court observed that in neither occasion did the stun gun use cause any significant injury to Birdine. Also, the force used was commensurate to the risk posed, and not excessive, observed the court. Accordingly, the court concluded that Birdine's constitutional rights as a pretrial detainee were not violated, and hence, his suit was dismissed.
For an excessive use of force claim under Section 1983, it is necessary to name the defendants who used excessive force. If the department is named, it will be a municipal liability case, and under Monell, a plaintiff must show a policy, custom, practice or procedure that can be linked to the constitutional violation complained of. In Goodwin v. Hamilton County (2005), Goodwin, an inmate of the Hamilton County Jail, was transported to a medical facility. Upon reaching the facility, the officers initially refused to release him. Later, they did let him out of the cruiser but with handcuffs. Goodwin alleges that soon after he got out of the cruiser, several officers tasered him, applied pepper spray, and kicked and choked him. Goodwin Fried a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force against the sheriffs department. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee directed Goodwin to rile an amended complaint naming all the defendants who used excessive force against him. In the second amended complaint, Goodwin named the officer who transported him to the medical facility, but did not seek monetary damages, and did not clarify if he was being sued in his official or individual capacity. As such, the court assumed that the officer was being sued in his official capacity. In that case, the court must proceed as if Goodwin has sued the county itself. In order to prevail on a suit against a county, the plaintiff must show that the constitutional violation was a result of an official custom or policy adopted by the county. Goodwin failed to show that the alleged violation of his rights was a result of Hamilton County's official custom or policy. Accordingly, the defendants were granted summary judgment.
The principle of respondeat superior does not apply to Section 1983 actions. In Ramirez v. Johnson (2007), inmate Ramirez filed a complaint about an event that occurred while he was a pretrial detainee. Ramirez alleged that he was handcuffed, beaten and tasered for taking a sandwich that did not belong to him from the jail's food cart. He filed a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force against the sheriff. Citing Polk County v. Dodson (1981), Cottone v. Jenne (2003) and Harris v. Ostrout (1995), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida observed that "respondeat superior, without more, does not provide a basis for recovery under Section 1983" (Ramirez v. Johnson, 2007). The mere right to control without any direct participation does not lead to Section 1983 liability. Accordingly, advising the plaintiff to file an amended complaint, the court held that unless the plaintiff alleges facts establishing a causal connection between the actions of Sheriff Johnson and the alleged constitutional violation, the complaint will fail.
In addition to the above holding, the court has also ruled that applying a Taser to a mentally ill inmate is not a violation of his or her constitutional rights as long as it does not amount to deliberate indifference to the inmate's serious medical needs. In Burkett v. Alachua County (2007), the mother of a detainee who died while in jail filed a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force and deliberate indifference to the detainee's mental health. Mark Burkett, the detainee, was agitated in his cell when officers came to take him for his first appearance before the judge. The officers shot Burkett with a Taser to handcuff him. At court, the judge ordered that Burkett be given a mental health evaluation and a blood sample be drawn from him. Later, when officers and a nurse tried to take blood from Burkett at his cell, he was highly agitated and resisted the officers. An officer used a stun gun on him while other officers placed him into a three-point restraint. Soon after, Burkett stopped breathing. Medical personnel conducted CPR on him, but he was declared dead at the hospital. Burkett's mother filed a Section 1983 suit. The 11th Circuit, in assessing the standard for excessive use of force, quoted Lee v. Ferraro (2002), which stated that the inquiry should be to "ask whether a reasonable officer would believe that [the] level of force [was] necessary in the situation at hand." The 11th Circuit observed that considering Burkett's agitation when officers entered his cell, his earlier aggression and his altered mental state, an officer could have believed that the use of force was reasonably necessary. Accordingly, the court held that the use of force was not excessive in violation of the Fourth Amendment, even though the detainee died in the process.
The de minimis standard. For an excessive force claim to succeed under Section 1983, there must be more than de minimis injury. In Valentine v. Richardson (2008), Valentine, a pretrial detainee, claimed that he was severely beaten by officers using stun guns and billy clubs. He was taken to the hospital the next day after he had seizures. Valentine filed a Section 1983 action against the officers for excessive use of force. Relying on hospital reports, the District Court concluded that Valentine had not been subjected to excessive force since there was no evidence of any bruising or injuries from the alleged assault. The court noted that even if Valentine was assaulted, his injuries were de minimis. After reviewing the magistrate judge's report, the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.
Excessive force claims in prisons do not survive if the injury is de minimis. In Henderson v. Gordineer (2007), Henderson, a pretrial detainee, had a skin problem. He alleged that his whole body was itching and that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. On the day of the incident, Henderson claims that he was distressed and, so, snatched some pills from Nurse Hudson and swallowed them. Detention officers threatened to taser him if he did not stop running and spit out the pills. Since he refused to do either, he was tasered once. Soon after, the Taser prongs were removed, he was medically examined and there was no injury found from the Taser. Henderson later filed a Section 1983 suit for excessive use of force against the detention officers for misuse of the Taser. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina applied the 4th Circuit decision of Norman v. Taylor (1994), which held that absent the most extraordinary circumstances, excessive force claims do not lie where the injury is de minimis. The Norman decision was based on a convicted inmate. The District Court ruled that the de minimis injury standard may also be applicable to pretrial detainees. Quoting Norman, the court observed that with de minimis physical injury, an inmate may recover only if the conduct resulted in "an impermissible infliction of pain" or was "repugnant to the conscience of mankind" (Norman v. Taylor, 1994). The use of a Taser device was also reasonable under the circumstances to gain control of Henderson. Accordingly, the defendants' motion for summary judgment was granted.
There are eight cases in this study that show circumstances where the courts found the use of Tasers and stun guns by jail officers to be inappropriate. Tasering a pretrial detainee in the back that resulted in permanent injury to his spinal cord, when he was only passively resisting, is objectively unreasonable (Harris v. City of Circleville, 2008). Tasering a person without provocation when she was lying on the floor of her cell at night is objectively unreasonable (Pipkins v. Pike County, Arkansas, 2007). Being shocked by a "gang" of correctional officers when the plaintiff was in his dorm drinking coffee is objectively unreasonable (Ndaula v. Holliday, 2007). Dragging and threatening to taser a sex offender who was real Tested for failing to register as a sex offender is excessive use of force (Burr v. Hill, 2005). Where the plaintiff was tasered during the booking process at a jail even though he was compliant raises questions of inappropriate use of a Taser device (Castaneda v. Douglas County Sheriffs Investigator Rory Planeta, 2007).
In 11 cases, the courts ruled in favor of prison officials. Where a pretrial detainee was kicked, punched and tasered while being taken to his holding cell, the court found the officers' actions reasonably related to the legitimate purpose of maintaining order and security (Davis v. Lancaster County, Nebraska, 2007). The use of Tasers and stun guns to induce compliance by difficult inmates during strip searches is justified since it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.
In an excessive force claim for use of Tasers, a plaintiff must specify each defendant and link the injury to the action of the defendant (Monroe v. Arpaio, 2005). Where the plaintiff alleged that a Taser was applied by unidentified police officers on his testicles, the court held that the plaintiff failed to show that the force was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances (Bustamante v. Roman, 2008). A pattern of the sheriff's ignoring the tasering of pretrial detainees must be shown to find him liable for such a policy, custom or practice under Monell (Tyson v. Dykes, 2007). Whether an excessive force claim will fall under the Fourth or the Eighth Amendment will depend on the stage at which it was used, before or after being taken into custody (Poteet v. Polk County, Tennessee, 2007). It is objectively reasonable to use Tasers and stun guns to maintain and restore order where the plaintiff was creating a disturbance in the detention center (McBride v. Clark, 2006). The court found the use of a Taser to be reasonable on two occasions: first, when a pretrial detainee was physically resisting the officers, and second, when a detainee was trying to destroy a light fixture in his cell, thereby posing a threat to the officers (Birdine v. Gray, 2005). In order to rind a supervisor liable for tasering done by his subordinate under Section 1983, the plaintiff must show a failure to train that is responsible for the constitutional violation, as the principle of respondeat superior does not apply. Moreover, such failure must amount to deliberate indifference (Sparks v. Reno County Sheriffs Department, 2004; Ramirez v. Johnson, 2007). Where a mentally ill inmate who was agitated and resisting officers died after he was tasered to bring him under control in order to take a sample of his blood, the court found the use of force objectively reasonable (Burkett v. Alachua County, 2007).
Where a plaintiff is suing a county because he was tasered by several officers, he must show that the action of the officers was related to an official policy, custom or practice to find the county liable under Monell (Goodwin v. Hamilton County, 2005). A pattern of the sheriff ignoring the tasering of pretrial detainees may result in liability for such a policy, custom or practice under Monell.
Of the 19 cases discussed, the courts ruled in favor of jail officers in 11. However, the number of cases in which they did not at this stage of the proceedings is comparable. As such, the issues of individual officer liability, official custom or policy, and adequate training must be addressed at the policy-making level on the basis of court decisions that show instances where individual officers and the municipality can be held liable.
Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).
Birdine v. Gray, 375 F.Supp.2d 874 (D. Neb. 2005).
Burge v. St. Tammany Parish, 336 E 3d 363 (5th Cir. 2003)
Burkett v. Alachua County, WL 2963844 (11th Cir. 2007).
Burr v. Hill, WL 2291891 (N.D. Tex. 2005).
Bustamante v. Roman, WL 622021 (D. Ariz. 2008).
Castaneda v. Douglas County Sheriff's Investigator Rory Planeta, WL 160816 (D. Nev. 2007).
City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989).
Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352 (11th Cir. 2003).
Davis v. Lancaster County, Nebraska, WL 2728549 (D. Neb. 2007).
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Goodwin v. Hamilton County, WL 1840259 (E.D. Tenn. 2005).
Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).
Harris v. City of Circleville, WL 211363 (S.D. Ohio 2008).
Harris v. Ostrout, 65 F.3d 912 (11th Cir. 1995). Hause v. Vaught, 993 F.2d 1079 (1993).
Henderson v. Gordineer, WL 840273 (D.S.C. 2007).
Jasper v. Thalacker, 999 F.2d 353 (8th Cir. 1993). Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028 (2nd Cir. 1973).
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Kuha v. City of Minnetonka, 365 F.3d 590 (8th Cir. 2004).
Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188 (11th Cir. 2002).
Lolli v. County of Orange, 351 F.3d 410 (9th Cir. 2003).
Marquart, J.W 1986. Prison guards and the use of physical coercion as a mechanism of prisoner control. Criminology, 24, 347-366.
Martin, M. 1961. The unconscious diabetic patient. American Journal of Nursing, 61, 92-94.
McBride v. Clark, WL 581139 (W.D. Mo. 2006).
McDowell v. Rogers, 863 F.2d 1302 (6th Cir. 1988).
Monell v. Department of Social Services, City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
Monroe v. Arpaio, WL 3054067 (D. Ariz. 2005).
Ndaula v. Holliday, WL 1098954 OV.D. La. 2007).
Norman v. Taylor, 25 F.3d 1259 (4th Cir. 1994).
Orem v. Rephann, 523 F.3d 442 (4th Cir. 2008).
Pipkins v. Pike County, Arkansas, WL 1521714 (W.D. Ark. 2007).
Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312 (1981).
Poteet v. Polk County, Tennessee, WL 1138461 (E.D. Tenn. 2007).
Ramirez v. Johnson, WL 2254317 (N.D. Fla. 2007).
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Riley a Dorton, 115 F.3d 1159 (4th Cir. 1997). Rizzo v. Goode, 423 U.S. 362 (1976).
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Rosen, C.J. 1990. Jail law. The Prison Journal, 70, 24-37.
Ruffin v. Commonwealth, WL 4928 (Va. 1871).
Sparks v. Reno County Sheriff's Department, WL 1664007 (D. Kan. 2004).
Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987).
Tyson v. Dykes, WL 3357189 (S.D. Miss. 2007).
Valentine v. Richardson, WL 80129 (D.S.C. 2008).
Stephens v. City of Butler, Alabama, 509 ESupp.2d 1098 (S.D. Ala. 2007).
Williams, H.E. 2008. Taser electronic control devices and sudden in-custody death: Separating evidence from conjecture. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas.
Wilson v. Spain, 209 F.3d 713 (8th Cir. 2000).
Vidisha Barua, Ph.D., Esq., and Robert M. Worley, Ph.D., are assistant professors of criminal justice at Penn State University, Altoona.
(1) One of the physical manifestations of a diabetic insulin reaction shock is poor muscular coordination and the diabetic person may stagger or fall down. This could be confused with alcohol intoxication (Martin, 1961); hence the police thought Graham was intoxicated.
(2) The three Graham factors: "The severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight" (Graham, 1989).
(3) "In determining whether [this] constitutional line has been crossed, a court must look to such factors as the need for the application of force, the relationship between the need and the amount of force used, the extent of the injury inflicted, and whether the force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain and restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm" Johnson v. Glick (1973).
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|Title Annotation:||Jailhouse Shock|
|Author:||Barua, Vidisha; Worley, Robert M.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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