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Supreme Court Ruling May Open the Door to Excessive Force Claims Relating to Use of a Taser Gun

The United States Supreme Court announced last Monday its decision to send a civil rights case involving police use of a Taser gun back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals for another look. The 5th Circuit Court, sitting in New Orleans, had previously dismissed the case, which involved a Lousiana man who was repeated tasered by police while already in handcuffs.

The order to remand the case comes a week after the Court sent another similar case back to the 5th Circuit. The Supreme Court said in that case that the appeals court acted too hastily when it dismissed the lawsuit of a man who was shot by a Houston-area police officer on the porch of his family home.

Now, the justices would like the 5th Circuit to reevaluate the civil rights case brought on behalf of the young son of Baron Pikes, who died after being Tasered by the now-former police officer in Winnfield, a town in central Louisiana. The appeals court must now more fully take account of the claims by Pike’s son, according to the order.

Baron Pikes, 21, was wanted for possession of crack cocaine the night he was arrested. Police chased him briefly before placing him in handcuffs. A police officer then used his Taser stun gun on Pikes at least eight times over a 14-minute period. Officers then dragged him to the Winnfield police department building where he began to exhibit signs of distress. He was pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital.

His death certificate lists cardiac arrest as his cause of death, attributed to the applications of the 50,000-volt stun gun. Pikes was shocked either eight or nine times. The cause of death is not an issue in the case. At the time of his death, Pikes had marijuana in his system and was found to have sickle cell anemia.

At issue in the case is whether the actions of the police officers amounted to “excessive force,” especially in light of the fact that Pikes was already in handcuffs. A federal district court judge allowed the case to go forward, but the claims were dismissed by the appeals court. Excessive force cases may be brought by victims of police brutality under federal civil rights law.

The police officer involved, Scott Nugent, was fired by the town of Winnfield after the incident. He was charged with manslaughter for causing Pikes’ death, but a jury acquitted him in 2010.

According to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the case had to be dismissed because it wasn’t clear that the officer’s actions violated Pike’s constitutional rights. The court said that Pikes was being arrested for a serious crime, made an effort to evade arrest, and was not compliant with officers’ commands to cooperate. Police officials are immune from being sued for monetary damages unless the official violated a “clearly established” constitutional right; that is, one that was already clearly established at the time that the incident occurred.