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U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Sets Limits on Taser Use By Police

Date Posted to Site: 03/24/2010

The Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision last month that sets important limits on the use of Tasers by law enforcement. The court's decision restricts the use of Tasers to situations in which there exists an "immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others." In other words, depending on the circumstances, non-lethal force can still be excessive force.

The ruling came as a result of a 2005 confrontation between Carl Bryan and City of Coronado Police Officer Brian McPherson. McPherson, who was stationed at an intersection checking for seat belt law compliance, saw that Bryan was not wearing a seat belt and ordered him to pull his vehicle over. Bryan became agitated because (1) he had received a speeding ticket earlier that morning, and (2) he had been locked out of his house and was wearing only boxers and shoes. (Click on the link below to read the court's decision and get all the details.) McPherson claims that after some back-and-forth Bryan, who was standing about 20 feet away, took a step toward him. Bryan claims that he did not. McPherson nonetheless fired his Taser at Bryan, who suffered temporary seizure and fell face forward, breaking four front teeth.

The court stated that though categorized as non-lethal force, and thus less severe than firearms, Tasers are nonetheless "more invasive" and capable of inflicting greater pain and harm than other methods, such as pepper spray. The X26 Taser used by McPherson shoots steel barbs that deliver a 1200-volt charge that causes extreme pain and temporary paralysis. Tasers can even cause death; eight people have died in the Sacramento region since 2003 after being stunned with Tasers by law enforcement.

In the incident between Bryan and McPherson, the court determined that use of the Taser violated Bryan's Fourth Amendment protection against excessive use of force, which arises from its prohibition of unreasonable searches. The court went on to say that while use of Tasers in some situations is warranted to prevent the need to employ lethal force, many confrontations, including the one between Bryan and McPherson, can be defused through less forceful means.

The bottom line is that the Ninth Circuit Court has made it clear that non-lethal force can still be excessive force in some instances. The decision is effective throughout the Ninth Circuit Court region of Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. It is possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could take up the issue if it receives requests for appeal on this case or others like it.

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