New Rules for Tasers in Five States

Officers in the five states covered by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals have been handed a new set of rules when it comes to the use of tasers after a ruling determined officers “lacked clear legal guidance” in the utilization of the device. For now, officers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are facing new restrictions and the increased possibility of injury. Now the question is “How will this affect the other 45 states?”

Since their early inception, tasers, and other conducted electrical weapons, have been vital in resolving physical confrontations quickly and without unnecessary injury. They have also been routinely utilized as pain compliance tools, with short bursts while in the pain mode used to force a suspect to follow commands or stop resisting officer’s attempts to take them into custody. But, according to the latest ruling by the 4th Circuit, such uses are to be considered excessive force and a violation of the 4th Amendment. The decision further restricts officers from using a CEW unless the suspect is presenting “an immediate safety risk” to someone other than themselves.

POLICE Taser 132127As any experienced officer knows, change is only one bad court decision from happening – and this is a perfect example. The 4th Circuit’s decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by the family of Robert H. Armstrong, a mentally ill man whom doctors had ordered involuntarily committed after believing he was a threat to himself. When officers responded and attempted to take Armstrong into custody, they observed him acting strangely and hurting himself by various means including putting out lit cigarettes on his tongue and poking holes in his legs. Although there is no evidence Armstrong actively resisted officers, he did resist in a passive manner – sitting on the ground, refusing orders and eventually gripping onto a sign post.

As would be expected, responding officers resorted to their tasers in pain mode to attempt to force Armstrong to release his grip and comply. When the taser failed to have the desired effect, it took a total of 5 officers, 3 LEO and 2 security personnel to physically pry him loose and take him into custody. Unfortunately, Armstrong stopped breathing soon after and died, which lead to the estate filing the federal civil rights complaint. Fortunately, the court also ruled that the officers were not liable for Armstrong’s death, citing the fact that previous rulings did not specifically address the constitutionality of CEW use. But now, courteous of the 4th Circuit, “officers should now be on notice that such taser use violated the 4th Amendment.”

This will not be the end of controversy nor will it be the end of such restrictions. This was not a simple mistake by a local magistrate or even a U.S. District Court; this was a ruling by a Circuit Court of Appeals. Circuit Court decisions are the law of the land, at least in their particular jurisdiction, unless overruled by a high court. More concerning is the ability of other courts to cite this decision in their cases and it is likely attorneys are already preparing their briefs to do just that. This means that the debate will continue in courtrooms from coast to coast, possibly with mixed results and eventually resulting in different rules for officers working in various jurisdictions. Finally, the issue will need to work its way through the court system to the U.S. Supreme Court – if for no other reason than to establish one rule for everyone. But until then everyone will be operating in a grey area, and officers will be placed at greater risk because they will need to rely on other less-reliable force options or may even hesitate using any force at all – all because of one bad court decision.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell
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