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TASER use restricted in 5 states

The decision applies in the five states in the 4th Circuit

By Paul Woolverton
The Fayetteville Observer

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Police officers lacked clear legal guidance on when they may zap people with Tasers, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decided on Monday, so it made a new rule to restrict their use.

If a person is not creating “an immediate safety risk,” the court said, officers aren’t allowed to shock him with a Taser. The pain it causes is an excessive use of force that violates the person’s constitutional rights under the 4th Amendment, it said.

The ruling arose from a lawsuit against Pinehurst over the death of a mentally ill man. Pinehurst police used a Taser’s pain mode in a failed attempt to make the man let go of a post. He died a few minutes later.

The decision applies in the five states in the 4th Circuit: North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The N.C. Justice Academy advised law enforcement agencies to revise their Taser policies to comply.

Officers likely will resort to other weapons, like pepper spray and batons, plus hands-on techniques to make people comply with their orders, said Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office attorney Ronnie Mitchell.

“I’m afraid it will lead to more injuries to individuals,” Mitchell said, both law enforcement officers and the people they are attempting to detain or control.

The Taser decision comes in a lawsuit filed by the estate of Robert H. Armstrong of Robbins. He had bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia and in April 2011 stopped taking his medications for these conditions.

A doctor judged him to be dangerous to himself - but not dangerous to anyone else - because he “was poking holes through the skin on his leg ‘to let the air out,’” the ruling says.

The doctor ordered Armstrong to be involuntarily committed to the hospital. Three Pinehurst police officers were sent to find Armstrong and bring him in.

The found Armstrong wandering in a busy street nearby, but could not detain him immediately because the involuntary commitment paperwork was incomplete.

While they waited, Armstrong sat on the ground by the road. He ate grass and dandelions, chewed on a “gauze-like substance” and used his tongue to extinguish cigarettes, the ruling says.

When the paperwork was ready, the officers approached. Armstrong wrapped his arms and legs tightly around a stop sign post and refused to let go.

After 30 seconds, the ruling said, one of the officer used a Taser’s pain mode, called drive stun mode, to try to make Armstrong let go.

The officer shocked Armstrong five times over the next two minutes, the ruling says. “Rather than have its desired effect, the tasing actually increased Armstrong’s resistance,” it says.

Finally, the three officers plus two security personnel from the hospital physically pried Armstrong’s arms and legs off of the post. They pinned him face-down, kneeled on him and stood on his back, and handcuffed him and shackled his legs, the ruling says.

Armstrong stopped breathing and died shortly after.

The Taser should never have been used on Armstrong because he wasn’t a threat anyone other than himself, the ruling says. But the officers aren’t liable for Armstrong’s death because prior court rulings and did not clearly say when it would be unconstitutional for them to use a Taser, the ruling says.

“Law enforcement officers should now be on notice that such taser use violates the Fourth Amendment,” it says.

Copyright 2016 The Fayetteville Observer