By ALICIA LEONARD
On February 3, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida submitted a petition to the United States Supreme Court over a 2004 Taser incident in northwest Florida. The ACLU is asking the court to make a ruling on whether law enforcement officers’ use of excessive force with a Taser is unconstitutional.
The case occurred in Washington County, between Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Rackard and citizen Jesse Buckley. According to court documents submitted by the ACLU, “On March 17, 2004, Mr. Buckley was arrested after refusing to sign a traffic citation during a routine traffic stop. He was handcuffed and voluntarily exited his vehicle, obviously in emotional distress, then fell to the ground. The arresting officer was under no apparent threat, as documented by the police car-mounted camera, yet “tased” Mr. Buckley three separate times. Each episode lasted five seconds, leaving 16 burn marks on his skin, some severe enough to produce keloid scars. Although Mr. Buckley never once actively resisted arrest nor attempted to flee, the officer continued to tase him solely to cause pain.”
The ACLU lawsuit alleges,”the deputy’s actions violate the Fourth Amendment, since his only purpose was to inflict pain upon an already-handcuffed arrestee to make him stand up.”
The case made its way up to a federal district court, which ruled “that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity, but by a split decision, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed that opinion. The 11th Circuit denied rehearing the case before the entire Circuit Court of Appeals, and upon denial the petition to move to the Supreme Court was made.”
Maria Kayman, ACLU of Florida associate legal director, made the following statement on the 11th circuit court’s decision, “The Eleventh Circuit’s ruling licenses police officers to use Tasers as cattle prods to inflict gratuitous pain on a nonviolent handcuffed arrestee, simply to herd him towards a police car. The repeated and excruciatingly painful application of 50,000 volts of electricity was once the exclusive province of the agents and implements of torture, and cannot be condoned in a civilized society.”
The safety of Tasers has repeatedly been called into question in the past 10 years. The law firm of Saiontz, Kirk and Miles states, “Well over 100 Taser lawsuits have been filed throughout the United States on behalf of individuals who were killed by a Taser gun or suffered severe personal injury. Taser International, which is the maker of the weapon, has been named as a defendant in many of these police brutality lawsuits and wrongful death claims, but they have been largely successful defending themselves in cases until recently. In June 2008, a jury awarded $6.2 million in a California wrongful death lawsuit filed against the company, which is believed to be the first product liability verdict against the manufacturer of the weapon. They are currently a party in about 40 other cases that are still pending.”
Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson successfully introduced the use of Tasers to the DeFuniak Springs Police Department when he was city marshall without any complications. Adkinson announced that the Walton County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) would also start using Tasers.
Adkinson said, “If an individual struggles with a law enforcement officer, the public should remember that there is a gun involved. This automatically escalates the situation, due to the possibility of the officers gun becoming involved. A majority of officers killed in this country are killed with their own firearm. Understanding that, when a deputy or an officer gives a citizen an order to comply or be taken into custody, if you choose to resist that or choose to fight with the officer, I believe the officer or deputy should use all means necessary to keep it from escalating. That protects the citizen involved as well. If a deputy or officer fears for their life, they may elect to use a firearm. We would much prefer they use a taser than a firearm.”
“The gentleman could probably have avoided being tased three times by following instructions. His actions caused him to be tased three times. From the way it sounds, after the third time he decided to comply and get into the patrol car. I don’t know the specifics of this case, but I think it is absolutely appropriate to use a taser, when an individual chooses to fight with an officer,” said Adkinson.
Different type of tasers deliver different types of charges according to Adkinson, “I’ve been tased 12 or 13 times in demonstrations, classes and such.” Some of the small-hand held devices that have to make direct contact with the body send less of a charge, “It’s like touching a ground wire.” But, the use of smaller devices are not as safe as a larger, tethered device, as the officer or deputy would have to be able to get close to the resister to touch them with it. The larger device can be fired from farther away, improving officer safety.
Adkinson said, “the use of force standards by the state Florida is a good guide for officers to use as each circumstance is different in the field. You can only use that taser until the person stops resisting. At the point they stop resisting, you should de-escalate.”
This seems to be what is at the crux of the Supreme Court case, what is considered resistance to a law enforcement officer and how far can tasers be used to get compliance from a citizen, should they passively resist? It’s up to the court now to decide, should they choose to hear the case.