NMA Reboot: What Constitutes Excessive Force?

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: No good statistics exist to confirm whether police use of excessive force is on the rise. However, with widespread use of cell phones and social media, many of these incidents are finding their way into the public’s consciousness. Such is the case of Jamal Jones, who was tasered and ripped from a car after police shattered his window. The vehicle driver had been pulled over for a seatbelt violation. The situation escalated when Jones, a passenger, could not produce identification. A spokesperson for the Hammond, Indiana, Police Department said the officers feared for their safety after Jones put his left hand behind the vehicle’s center console. However, a review of the video doesn’t appear to show this and actually shows Jones holding what looks like a cell phone in his left hand throughout most of the recording. A civil suit against the police officers is pending.

The NMA covered some of the legal aspects of use of excessive force and tasering in this newsletter from 2010.


NMA Email Newsletter #55: Excessive Force Ruling Could Limit Police Tasering

The U.S. Supreme Court established a three-part test to determine when excessive force by police is justified.

1.   Is the officer being threatened?
2.   Is the suspect attempting to flee?
3.   Does the severity of the alleged offense support the use of significant force?

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently that the use of a taser by police in a traffic case did not meet those three criteria. As a result, the police officer who did the tasering was refused immunity by the court. Legal scholars have noted the significance of the appellate decision: It does not give deference to the use of force by the police and, in particular, it limits the use of a taser.

The case that triggered this ruling involved Carl Bryan, a California driver who was stopped twice by police — for speeding one time and for not wearing his seat belt the other — while attempting to track down a friend who earlier took Bryan’s car keys by mistake. The court records indicate after the second stop, Bryan became agitated. He yelled gibberish, pounded his thighs, and was dressed only in boxer shorts and shoes.

After being tasered, Bryan fell and broke four of his teeth. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the case to go forward against the officer who shot Bryan with the taser, noting that “traffic violations generally will not support the use of a significant level of force.”

The 9th Circuit covers much of the western region of the U.S., but the precedent set by this ruling could impact judicial decisions across the country. It is estimated that over 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use tasers or similar electricity-conducting devices. Some of those agencies have already outlined more stringent criteria for their use, but for those that haven’t, the Bryan decision could have a major impact.

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