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Another Taser Lawsuit, Another Qualified Immunity Finding

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Tasers allow cops to incapacitate resistant suspects for a brief period of time with "relatively few risks." But there are still risks.

A police officer in Columbus, Ohio, used a Taser to subdue Patrick Hagans, "a middle-aged man undone by cocaine and unwilling as a result to allow officers to detain him." Hagans died three days after the incident. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that, because the officer did not violate clearly established law by using the Taser in this setting, qualified immunity protects him from the lawsuit.

On to the condensed facts.

Patrick Hagans was on crack, and creating an early-morning ruckus. A neighbor called the cops.

Hagans resisted arrest. After two officers were unable to subdue Hagans, Officer Jason Ratcliff whipped out his Taser. He applied the Taser to Hagans four to six times in drive-stun mode. The shocks weren't working, so Ratcliff joined the other officers in physically subduing Hagans. He was eventually handcuffed and shackled. Three days later, Hagans died.

Hagans' estate sued the Franklin County Sheriff's Department and Officer Ratcliff. The estate alleged that Ratcliff used excessive force by tasing Hagans repeatedly in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The two qualified immunity questions before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in this case were: (1) whether Officer Ratcliff violated Hagans' constitutional rights by repeatedly tasing him after he actively resisted arrest; and, if so, (2) whether that constitutional right was clearly-established at the time of the May 2007 incident.

The appellate court noted, "The first question raises some complications. The second one does not. We opt to answer the easier of the two questions."

Way to take the easy way out, Sixth Circuit.

Here, the court explained: If a suspect actively resists arrest and refuses to be handcuffed, officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment by using a Taser to subdue him.

The circuit's precedent supports that holding.

One notable ruling on this topic is the Sixth Circuit's unpublished Williams v. Sandel opinion. In that case, officers confronted a suspect who was high on ecstasy, nude and jogging along the interstate at midnight. The suspect refused to be handcuffed, prompting officers to tase him 37 times (and to use batons and pepper spray) until he stopped resisting.

The Sixth Circuit found the officers' use of force was reasonable.

So for an officer's Taser-happy actions to be unreasonable to the Sixth Circuit, the officer would basically have to do something more outrageous than tasing a naked dude -- who is simultaneously rolling, jogging, and resisting arrest -- 37 times.

But remember: Resistance is futile critical. If a suspect is compliant or has stopped resisting arrest, police no longer have license to tase.

If you're trying to decide whether or not to take a prospective client's Tasers-as-excessive-force case, try to determine whether or not the suspect was resisting when he when he was tased. If he was resisting, the Sixth Circuit will grant the officer qualified immunity.

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