Jeff Fabian, Don’t Tase Me Bro!: A Comprehensive Analysis of the Laws Governing Taser Use by Law Enforcement

62 Fla. L. Rev. 763 (2010) | | | |

INTRODUCTION ::Financially destitute and homeless, a man began to sob after receiving a speeding ticket. When the man refused to sign the ticket, the ticketing officer arrested the man. The officer placed the man in handcuffs and began leading him to the patrol car. As the two walked towards the patrol car, the man went limp and fell to the ground in despair. The man continued to sob and remained limp as the officer tried to lift him to his feet.The officer warned the man that if he didn’t get up, he would be Tasered. When the man did not comply, the officer Tasered the man three times. During each Taser shock, the man convulsed and writhed on the ground in pain. When the Tasering stopped, the man still could not bring himself to his feet. After another officer arrived on the scene, the two officers easily lifted the suspect off the ground and placed him in a patrol car.

Another man, suspected of physically abusing his estranged wife, was verbally confronted by police. Moments into the verbal confrontation, the man turned and ran. The officers gave chase and attempted to stop the man by Tasering him. The suspect resisted the shock and continued to flee. Eventually the officers caught up to the suspect and Tasered him as they tried to bring him under control.

The first man was arrested for speeding and sat on the ground crying in despair; the other man was suspected of a violent crime and fled police. Can you guess which Tasering was ruled reasonable by a federal court? If you knew that Tasering the distraught speeder was ruled reasonable and that Tasering the domestic abuse suspect was not, then it should not come as a surprise to learn that a federal district court in Arizona ruled that it was reasonable to Taser a sleeping man five or six times.

Images of officers Tasering suspects can be graphic and difficult to watch. Such images can spark outrage and protests-particularly when the Tasering seems grossly disproportionate to the culpability of the suspect. And when law enforcement officers don’t face penalties for such disproportionate uses of force, the public is left to wonder: how could that be possible? By design, the law governing an officer’s use of force is nebulous. This lack of specificity allows courts to grant law enforcement officers a great deal of latitude when deciding how much and what type of force to use.

Officers can escape liability for excessive force if a court deems the use of force reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. However, the lack of specificity in federal excessive force jurisprudence makes it difficult to determine ahead of time what type and how much force a court would likely consider reasonable. Thus, the jurisprudence provides officers little guidance about when to use Tasers against suspects and how to comply with the Fourth Amendment.

Part II of this Note examines the safety and effectiveness of Taser use by highlighting key studies on the topic. Part III of this Note explains federal excessive force jurisprudence. Part IV looks at excessive force cases to determine how courts have applied the law to specific fact patterns. Part IV concludes that courts do not heavily restrict Taser use by law enforcement-sometimes even allowing officers to Taser passively resisting or vulnerable suspects. Part V surveys state and local laws governing Taser use by law enforcement. Finally, Part VI concludes that laws governing Taser use by law enforcement can be improved by providing officers more guidance about when Taser use is appropriate and by crafting laws that provide citizens more protection.

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