Police officers are allowed to use reasonable force when arresting someone. When they use more force than is necessary to make an arrest, the arrestee might have a viable lawsuit for any resulting injuries.
The issue of excessive force often arises when officers use tasers, which shoot electric probes that are incapacitating and very painful and can cause heart attacks or other serious physical consequences for some people. (Tasers can also be used to “drive stun,” which involves the user placing the weapon directly against the subject without shooting the probes.) Whether use of this kind of weapon constitutes excessive force depends on the circumstances.
Courts realize that officers often have to make split-second decisions in uncertain situations. When evaluating a case, they therefore consider all the circumstances surrounding police use of force. The operative question is what a reasonable officer would do if confronted with the same circumstances. For example, protecting a mentally ill person walking down the street from injuring himself would probably require less force than stopping a suspect pointing a gun at someone. Likewise, if a single firing of the weapon clearly subdues a suspect, further “tasing” could be found excessive.
Courts routinely consider the following factors in determining the reasonableness of the force officers used:
The use of tasers is more likely to be considered reasonable if there is a serious or violent crime at hand. Conversely, if the offense is along the lines of a traffic violation or resisting an officer without violence, taser use is less likely to be acceptable.
But the nature of the suspected offense is just one factor to consider. Even when the crime is minor, it might be okay for an officer to use a taser on a hostile and uncooperative suspect.
The threat a suspect poses is typically the most important factor in determining whether taser use was appropriate. Even when the crime is relatively minor—say, disorderly conduct—threatening behavior can justify the police using a taser.
Here are a couple cases involving perceived or actual threats to safety in which courts have found tasing justified:
Courts don't always rule for the police, though. In one case involving the death of a mentally ill man, a federal appeals court stated that a taser “may only be deployed when a police officer is confronted with an exigency that creates an immediate safety risk and that is reasonably likely to be cured by using the taser.” The man in the case had wrapped his arms around a post and wasn't a continuing threat to safety, but officers stunned him five times. (The court, however, found that the officers were entitled to "qualified immunity" (discussed below) because the law on this kind of taser use wasn't clearly established at the time.) (Estate of Armstrong ex rel. Armstrong v. Vill. of Pinehurst, 810 F.3d 892 (4th Cir. 2016).)
Courts often won’t approve of officers using tasers on suspects who weren't actively resisting arrest or trying to evade arrest by flight, including those who have been subdued and are otherwise compliant and anyone who is unconscious.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, a court found taser use reasonable where an officer used the weapon multiple times on a suicidal person who was holding a gun and refusing to comply with the officer’s commands. Because the suspect was still standing and able to speak after the first taser shock, it was reasonable to believe he still posed a threat, justifying continued use of the taser. (Wargo v. Municipality of Monroeville, PA, 646 F.Supp.2d 777 (W.D. Pa. 2009).).
Additional factors can be relevant in determining whether taser use amounts to excessive force, including:
Again, courts are supposed to look at the specific circumstances the police encountered when deciding whether the force was reasonable.
If you think you have been a victim of excessive force by the police, it's important to understand your rights. It’s also important to understand how a potential lawsuit against the police could affect the criminal case against you (if there is one).
If you face criminal charges and are interested in filing a lawsuit, talk to your criminal defense attorney. Even if that lawyer won’t be the one to file a lawsuit, consulting your defense attorney and keeping him or her informed will likely be critical.
When it comes to pursuing a lawsuit, an experienced civil rights or personal injury attorney should be able to advise you of your options and the relevant rules under your state’s law and federal law. You can discuss with that kind of lawyer whether a police officer’s employer or supervisor could be liable for failing to train, supervise, investigate, or discipline the officer. Importantly, the lawyer can evaluate whether the officer has a qualified immunity defense (protection from the lawsuit).