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Decided: January 11, 2016  

The Fourth Circuit held that the Appellees (Village of Pinehurst) used unconstitutionally excessive force when seizing Armstrong and agreed with the district court that the Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, the district court’s grant of summary judgment in the Appellees’ favor was affirmed.

Armstrong, who suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, had been off of his medicine for several days. Armstrong’s sister brought him into the hospital, and when he fled, the Pinehurst Police were called. When the police arrived, Armstrong’s commitment order had not yet been finalized, and the parties engaged in conversation in which Armstrong was acting weirdly. As soon as the commitment papers were complete, the police advanced toward Armstrong, where he wrapped himself around a post and refused to budge. After pleading with Armstrong for thirty seconds, the officers tased Armstrong a total of five times over two minutes and pulled Armstrong off of the post. While struggling with Armstrong to place him in handcuffs, Armstrong complained he was being choked. After subduing Armstrong, Armstrong’s sister noticed that he was facedown and unresponsive. His skin was blue, and he did not appear to be breathing. The officers administered CPR, called EMS, and the hospital pronounced him dead shortly after his admission.

Armstrong’s Estate (Appellant) sued each police officer involved in Armstrong’s seizure, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers used excessive force, in violation of Armstrong’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, when seizing him. The district court granted summary judgment to the Appellees stating that there was not likely a constitutional violation, but if there was, the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. This appeal followed. Qualified immunity is a protection for officers that commit constitutional violations but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful. This immunity involves two inquiries: “(1) whether the plaintiff has established the violation of constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.” In order to survive summary judgment, both of these questions must be answered in the affirmative.     

The Fourth Circuit first inquired as to whether the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right. When determining if excessive force has been used, the court looks at first, “the severity of the crime at issue”; second, the extent to which “the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others”; and last, “whether [the suspect] is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” The first factor weighs heavily in Armstrong’s favor because no crime was actually committed, and even if his resisting was determined to be a crime, it was a minor one, and the factor would still weigh in Armstrong’s favor. It is important to note that the conduct used to treat a mentally ill person is different than the conduct used to treat someone who has committed a crime. The second and third factors, whether Armstrong threatened the safety of others and resisted seizure, do justify some, limited, use of force. However, the degree of force needed is enough to prevent Armstrong’s flight, and it was clear Armstrong was not going anywhere, and the only risk he posed was to himself. Further, the officers only spoke to Armstrong for thirty seconds to attempt to have him let go of the pole before tasing him. The use of a taser is unreasonable force in response to resistance that does not raise a risk of immediate danger. The proportionality of the force in light of the circumstances show that the amount of force Appellees used was not objectively reasonable. Here, the Fourth Circuit determined that when seizing Armstrong, the Appellees used unreasonably excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

However, the district court’s grant of summary judgment was still proper because Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity. A plaintiff can prove that an official has violated his rights, but an official is still entitled to qualified immunity. After defining the constitutional right, the court must ask whether it was clearly established at the time the Appellees acted. This requirement is satisfied when it is clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he or she was doing would violate that right. Unlawfulness must be apparent. Here, the constitutional right in question is Armstrong’s right not be subjected to tasing while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to a lawful seizure. While the precedent supported the conclusion that Appellees violated that right while seizing Armstrong, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that this conclusion was not so settled at the time they acted that “every reasonable official would have understood that tasing Armstrong was unconstitutional. Case law indicated that Appellees were treading close to the constitutional line; however, the case law did not have sufficiently clear guidance to forfeit their qualified immunity. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the Appellees.

The Fourth Circuit used this opinion to clarify when the use of a taser amounts to excessive force, at least in some circumstances. A taser is expected to inflict plain or injury when it is used. It, therefore, may only be deployed when a police officer is confronted with a circumstance that creates an immediate safety threat and that is reasonably likely to be cured using a taser. A seizure suspect does not create a sufficient risk because he or she is doing something that can be characterized as resistance, even when that resistance includes physically preventing an officer’s manipulations of his body. Safety risks do not necessarily arise because there is erratic behavior or mental illness. Importantly, when a seizure is intended to prevent a mentally ill individual from harming himself, the officer affecting the seizure has a lessened interest in deploying potentially harmful force. Therefore, during the course of the seizure of a mentally ill person who is only in danger to himself, police officers who choose to use a taser in the face of stationary and non-violent resistance to being handcuffed have used unreasonably excessive force. Even though qualified immunity protected the officers in this situation, law enforcement officers should now be on notice that this type of taser use constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Full Opinion

Austin T. Reed