Taser Lawsuits Against the Police

Learn when officers can use tasers, and when a "tased" suspect has a potential lawsuit.

Police officers are, of course, allowed to use reasonable force when arresting someone. But there are limits to how much force they can use. When they use more than is necessary to make an arrest, the arrestee may have a lawsuit for any resulting injuries.

The excessive-force issue often arises when officers use tasers. Whether use of the weapon constitutes excessive force depends on the circumstances.

Reasonable or Excessive Force?

Courts realize that officers often have to make split-second decisions in uncertain situations; 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.

Courts routinely consider the following factors in determining the reasonableness of the force officers used:

  • the severity of the arrestee’s crime
  • whether the suspect constitutes a current threat to officers or others, and
  • whether the suspect physically resists arrest or tries to escape.

Severity of the Crime

The use of tasers is more likely to be “reasonable” if there is a serious or violent crime at hand. But this is just one factor to consider. Even when the crime is minor, it might be okay to use a taser on a hostile and uncooperative suspect.

But, in general, a police officer’s use of a taser will constitute excessive force if:

  • the crime is so minor that a reasonable officer wouldn’t have even issued a citation
  • the officer made no attempt to arrest or handcuff the suspect, or
  • the suspect poses only a slight threat.

An example of excessive force lies in a case involving a minor crime involving a suspect who: wasn’t threatening, obeyed the officer’s instructions, stepped away from the officer before she received the first taser shock, and was on the ground, unable to resist at the point of the second shock. (Powell v. Haddock, 366 Fed.Appx. 29 (11th Cir. 2010).).

Immediate Threat to Safety

The threat a suspect poses is typically the most important factor in determining whether taser use was appropriate. There must be an immediate threat, not just the possibility of a threat, to justify employment of a taser.

Courts have found “tasing” justified when:

  • A disorderly conduct suspect attempted to evade arrest, refused to show his hands when instructed, told officers that they would have to shoot him, and the back-up officers had requested hadn’t arrived (McNeil v. City of Easton, 694 F.Supp.2d 375 (E.D. Pa. 2010)).
  • A suspect stopped for a malfunctioning tag light refused to obey instructions, verbally confronted the officer, and acted aggressively. (Draper v. Reynolds, 369 F.3d 1270 (11th Cir. 2004).).

Actively Resisting

Courts normally won’t sanction officers using tasers on suspects who haven’t resisted, including those who:

  • have been subdued or handcuffed
  • are otherwise compliant, or
  • are unconscious.

In the following examples, courts found the use of tasers reasonable because the suspects resisted:

  • The officer used a taser 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. (Wargo v. Municipality of Monroeville, PA, 646 F.Supp.2d 777 (W.D. Pa. 2009).).
  • An officer used a taser on a suspect who, after being tackled by police, refused to stay down as instructed. (Yarborough v. Montgomery, 554 F. Supp.2d 611 (D.S.C. 2008).)

Other Factors

Courts tend to consider additional factors when determining whether force is excessive, including:

  • the extent of the arrestee’s injury
  • whether the officers identified themselves as such, and
  • whether officers warned the suspect that they would use a taser if he or she didn’t comply with instructions.

Consult a Lawyer

If you think you have been a victim of excessive force by the police, it's important to understand your rights. An experienced attorney can advise you of your options under state and federal law, and discuss with you whether the officer’s employer or supervisor could be liable for failing to train, supervise, investigate, or discipline the officer. Importantly, the lawyer can explain whether the officer has a “qualified immunity” defense (protection from the lawsuit).

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