Unconstitutional TASER deployment results in huge damages award against offending officer

Eighth Circuit rejects officer’s qualified immunity defense and finds continuous TASER deployment unnecessary, excessive and a violation of clearly established law


On September 14, 2014, Bryce Masters, a 17-year-old high school senior, was driving his car on a street in Independence, Missouri. Officer Timothy Runnels of the  Independence Police Department, conducted a license plate check on Masters’ car, which disclosed a warrant associated with the plate. Unknown to Runnels, the warrant connection to Masters’ car was erroneous due to clerical error. Runnels stopped Masters and from the passenger side front window, ordered him to roll the window down. Masters only rolled it down partway.

Runnels went to the driver’s side door, opened it, and ordered Masters to exit the car. Masters refused, asking “for what” and whether he was under arrest. Runnels told him he was under arrest but did not explain why.

When Masters failed to exit the car, Runnels drew his X26 TASER and asked him if he wanted to be tased. Masters leaned back onto the passenger side of the car and said he had done nothing wrong. Runnels holstered the TASER and attempted to drag Masters out by his legs. Masters resisted by pulling away but did not attempt to kick or hit Runnels. Runnels drew the TASER again and pulled the trigger. The TASER probes hit Masters in the chest and abdomen. Masters responded by exiting the car and lying face-down on the pavement. Masters fell unconscious. Runnels knelt down, released the trigger on the TASER and handcuffed Masters.

Runnels triggered the electric current into Masters’ body continuously [1]for 20 seconds (the equivalent of four five-second TASER cycles according to the court). The current discharge stopped when Runnels released the TASER trigger. Runnels handcuffed Masters and lifted him by the arms; dragged him to a nearby driveway; and dropped him face-first onto the concrete. The drop caused Masters to receive four fractured teeth, abrasions to his forehead and a lacerated chin. Moreover, the continuous TASER discharge resulted in Masters receiving a disrupted heartbeat, which in turn caused a heart convulsion. The end result was an “anoxic brain injury” [2] from cardiac arrest. Runnels was terminated from the police department and indicted by a federal grand jury for civil rights violations. He pleaded guilty to one civil rights count and was sentenced to 48 months federal confinement.

The lawsuit

Masters sued Runnels in 2016 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 for using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Masters alleged, among other things, that Runnels used excessive force by prolonging the discharge of his TASER and dropping him face-first onto the concrete while he was unconscious.

Runnels moved for dismissal based upon his claim of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion and a five-day trial followed in December 2018. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Masters in the amount of $5 million in compensatory damages on the TASER claim and $50,000 in compensatory damages for the drop claim.

The jury also awarded punitive damages: $500,000 for the TASER claim; and $1 million for the drop claim. Upon Runnels’ motion, the district court reduced the punitive damage award on the drop claim to $236,500. Both parties filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. [3]

The appeals and decision of the Eighth Circuit

Runnels argued on appeal that he is entitled to a post-verdict judgment in his favor because his TASER use was a protected action based upon the qualified immunity defense. The court stated that it needed to “conduct a two-part inquiry to determine whether qualified immunity protects a government official from liability.” First, the court explained that it must decide whether Officer Runnels violated a constitutional right and second was that right clearly established at the time of the alleged incident. [4]

The court noted that Masters’ excessive force claim regarding the TASER focused solely on Runnels’s prolonged use of the TASER, i.e., the last 15 seconds of its deployment. The court observed that Masters was not believed to have committed a violent crime. Further, although he attempted to pull away from Runnels, he never attempted to hit or kick him. Moreover, “any slight safety threat he might have posed dissipated during the last 15 seconds of the continual tasing when he was not resisting but in fact was complying with Runnels’s commands, getting out of his car, and laying down on the pavement.” The court stated that “Masters, ‘was an unarmed suspected misdemeanant, who was not resisting arrest, did not threaten Runnels, did not attempt to run … and did not behave aggressively.’” [5] The court stated that “Masters stopped resisting … soon after Runnels initially discharged his TASER” and concluded that a reasonable officer would not have continued to tase Masters under these circumstances.

The court next focused on whether a prolonged and unnecessary use of a TASER upon a complying suspect was a clearly established use of excessive force. The court reviewed an earlier Eighth Circuit opinion decided in 2019 [6] and observed that “In Jackson, we held that it was clearly established as of 2013 that tasing an individual—who had fallen to the ground after being initially tased for five seconds—a second time without warning or time to affirmatively comply with the officer’s commands was excessive force.” [7] The court further explained regarding its review of the Jackson case, “This was the case even though Jackson was initially tased for actively threatening a police officer by ‘raising his right fist toward the officer’s head.’” [8] The court concluded by stating, “An officer may not continue to tase a person who is no longer resisting … . That is so whether the tasing comes in the form of multiple, separate deployments or, as in this case, a single, continuous deployment that lasts for an extended period.”

Reduction of punitive damage award for the face-drop reversed

As mentioned earlier, the jury awarded Masters $1 million in punitive damages for dropping him on his face while unconscious. The trial judge reduced that award to $236,000. Masters challenged that decision on appeal and the Eighth Circuit reversed. The court declared that Runnels’ decision to drop Masters on his face was reprehensible and reflected the callousness shown by him to Masters’ well-being. Moreover, this conduct supports the conclusion that Runnels acted with intentional malice. The court concluded that the proper amount of punitive damages in this situation was $425,700 for the face-drop.

Conclusion

Police use of a TASER upon a resisting suspect must always be carefully considered both at the outset of deployment and during deployment. Here the court approved of Runnels' initial deployment of the taser to gain control of Masters. However, the court was highly critical of Runnels’ continued TASER application for an additional 15 seconds. The court determined that this additional TASER application after Masters was no longer resisting was offensive and constitutionally excessive. The affirmed jury compensatory damage award of $5 million and $500,000 in punitive damages for excessive TASER deployment speaks for itself when the risks of TASER abuse are evaluated.

Likewise, it appears that both the jury and the Eighth Circuit were appalled at the callous manner in which Masters was treated by Runnels after falling unconscious from the TASER deployment. Picking the handcuffed Masters up by the arms, dragging him to a concrete surface and dropping him unconscious and face-first onto the pavement, amounted to extremely poor and unnecessary judgment by Runnels. The disdain for this conduct is clearly reflected in the jury award of $50,000 in compensatory damages and the Eighth Circuit’s approval of punitive damages in the amount of over $425,000.

Reference

1. Once Runnels pulled the TASER trigger, he held it in the discharge position continuously for 20 seconds.

2. Anoxic brain damage involves the death of brain tissue from lack of oxygen.

3. Masters v. Runnels, (No. 19-2199) (8th Cir. 2021).

4. The Supreme Court, in Pierson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009), gave the lower federal courts the latitude to reverse the order described by the Eighth Circuit above and decide first whether the law on a particular constitutional issue was clearly decided. If it was not, there would not be a need to decide whether the particular conduct violated the constitution, and the qualified immunity defense would prevail.

5. Quoting, Shekelton v Eichenberger, 677 F.3d 361, 366 (8th Cir. 2012).

6. See, Jackson v. Stair, 944 F.3d 704, 713 (8th Cir. 2019).

7. Id. 711-713.

8. Id. at 708.

NEXT: Failure to train ruling: Officer's alleged reckless driving in non-emergency situation results in civilian fatality

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