Fayetteville Police say a recent court decision restricting the use of Tasers has not affected policy governing their use. “The ruling didn’t cause a significant change in our policy. We were mostly in line with the ruling already. We only had to make a minor tweak,” said Lt. David McLaurin. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Taser use may be unconstitutionally excessive force in some circumstances. The decision immediately affects five southern states including North Carolina. Fayetteville Police policy says the weapon, which is considered non-lethal, may be used “when attempts to subdue a subject by conventional tactics have been or are likely to be ineffective.”
The appellate court said police officers in Pinehurst were entitled to qualified immunity from a lawsuit by the family of Ronald H. Armstrong, but that they nonetheless used unconstitutionally excessive force in an incident that killed him. Armstrong was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia and went off his medication shortly before the 2011 incident. When he learned that commitment papers were taken out by his family, Armstrong wrapped himself around a signpost and refused to leave. Instead of trying to talk him into leaving, the 4th Circuit said, three police officers stunned him five times over about two minutes.
The Taser was in “drive stun mode,” a setting designed to cause pain and, therefore, create compliance with police orders. That’s a method prohibited by Fayetteville police in similar circumstances. Officers and hospital security guards physically removed Armstrong from the signpost, laid him face down on the ground and handcuffed both his arms and his legs. During the struggle, Armstrong complained that he was being choked; he became unresponsive and was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.
The 4th Circuit Court held that Taser use can — and, in this case, did — violate the subject’s Fourth Amendment right that protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Armstrong had not committed a crime, the court said and was declared a danger only to himself. Though Armstrong was resisting police, the court said the force used was greater than required. It noted that other circuits have held that Tasers can be a disproportionate force when used against nonviolent resistance and that its own precedent on other police weapons supports the same conclusion about Tasers.
“Law enforcement officers should now be on notice that using a Taser against someone like Armstrong violates the Fourth Amendment,” the court concluded. Fayetteville police policy prescribes that “Officers should always attempt de-escalation techniques and other options prior to deploying” a Taser, according to McLaurin. It goes on to say “abuse or misuse of the weapon can be a violation of state and federal law.”