Civil Rights Law & Policy Blog

Editor: Andrew M. Ironside

A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Friday, January 24, 2014

Excessive force claims under Fourth Amendment less protective when police use tasers?

In Shocking the Conscience: What Police Tasers and Weapon Technology Reveal about Excessive Force LawAaron Sussman argues that excessive force jurisprudence under the Fourth Amendment has tended towards providing less protection for citizens who make excessive force claims against 
Taserpolice who have used tasers during an arrest. For such cases, Sussman prescribes a re-commitment to "the balancing standard" articulated by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386 (1989); and, (2) a more "reality-based approach" to qualified immunity claims. 

The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons... against unreasonable searches and seizures[.]" According to the Graham Court, excessive force claims fall under the Fourth Amendment's protection against "unreasonable...seizures." Id. at 395.  Whether the use of a taser is "unreasonable" requires balancing "the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests [on account of being tased] against the countervailing governmental interests at stake." Id. at 396. (Internal quotations omitted). This inquiry "depends not only on when [a seizure] is made, but also on how it is carried out." Importantly, the Graham Court wrote: 

The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene...With respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge's chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.

 

As in other Fourth Amendment contexts, however, the "reasonableness" inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers' actions are "objectively reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. An officer's evil intentions will not make a Fourth Amendment violation out of an objectively reasonable use of force; nor will an officer's good intentions make an objectively unreasonable use of force constitutional. Id. at 396-97. (Internal citations and quotations omitted).

Susmann claims courts have demonstrated little actual fidelity to the Graham balancing test. "Courts are likely to misjudge both the individual’s and the government’s interests in taser cases," he writes, "because these cases involve poorly understood technology and less serious observable injury." He later adds,

Courts do not serve the mandates of Graham when they fail to acquire a sufficient understanding of what tasers actually do or of what is still unknown about what they do. In addition to obtaining an understanding of the use of force before deciding whether its use was reasonable, courts should presume that it would be unreasonable for officers to deploy a weapon without understanding its effects. Similarly, neither Graham nor fundamental Fourth Amendment principles are served by discounting plaintiffs’ experience of pain, emotional distress, and fear. Doing so will effectively turn weapons designed to inflict severe pain while minimizing tissue damage into tools for avoiding legal liability, a role they may already play given developments in qualified immunity doctrine.

Qualified immunity protects individual police officers from lawsuits arising from their actions in furtherance of an unconstitutional law or policy. According to Sussman, "Qualified immunity substantially advantages defendant police officers. The doctrine helps courts justify grants of summary judgment and provides defendants two opportunities to escape liability, both entailing their own pro-defendant" biases.

Here's the abstract to Shocking the Conscience:

Since Graham v. Connor, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion establishing the Fourth Amendment standard for assessing whether a police officer’s use of force was unconstitutionally excessive, the law has slowly developed through a body of narrow and fact-specific precedents that guide judges’ excessive force and qualified immunity analyses. Recently, the Ninth Circuit — the source of many of the most influential excessive force opinions — decided three contentious cases regarding when an officer’s use of a taser is unconstitutional. On one view, these cases raise novel questions about how to apply the Fourth Amendment standard for nontraditional and technologically advanced uses of force. In this Comment, however, I argue that these cases predominantly present issues that pervade all excessive force jurisprudence and illuminate judicial trends and tendencies disadvantaging plaintiffs while advantaging defendant officers. In light of this understanding, my proposal is not for new rules or standards in taser cases. Rather, I suggest that courts, first, faithfully apply Graham’s standard of balancing the nature and quality of the Fourth Amendment intrusion against the government’s interest in the officer’s use of force and, second, employ a reality-based approach in deciding whether the officer is entitled to qualified immunity. For courts to do this, excessive force jurisprudence must evolve to match the development of police weapons technology. That evolution includes fully understanding and considering the distinctive effects and risks posed by tasers and presuming that a reasonable police officer would have done the same.

Relatedly on CRL&P: 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/civil_rights/2014/01/shocking-the-conscience-what-police-tasers-and-weapon-technology-reveal-about-excessive-force-law.html

42 U.S.C. § 1983, Excessive Force, Fourth Amendment | Permalink

Comments

In ten years or so there will be a number of large jury verdicts for plaintiffs who sue cops for shooting them with lethal weapons which the cops just call safe tasers. Then the legal profession and law professors will click. Lethal weapons. A state actor may not apply lethal force by use of a lethal weapon unless there are certain factors in play. He cannot shot grandpa when grandpa is at the nursing home and refuses to go to the hospital for some treatment he does not want and simply holds up an ink pen in defense. Don't tase me bro will be humorously used by trial attorneys when they ask a jury to stick it to these cops for killing grandpa with their favorite little tasers.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jan 25, 2014 6:53:07 PM

Post a comment