I suppose it’s unsurprising that criminal defense lawyers and plaintiff’s lawyers would all have concerns about the use of Tasers — the Taser victims and their family members end up in our offices — but even prosecutors and municipal and state defense lawyers (speaking off the record, of course) express dismay at the frequency and manner in which Tasers are used.

By Amnesty International’s count, since 2001 over 500 people have died in the US as a result of Taser use. Police departments have just begun admitting there’s a problem. Cincinnati’s police chief has admitted Tasers can kill. Seattle won dismissal of the civil rights claims in a case case where they Tasered a pregnant woman for refusing to sign a speeding ticket and, rather than crowing over their victory, said they had already changed their policy. It’s a start; as I’ve discussed before, the tendency of police departments to move from zealous law enforcement to brutality is all too common.

Alas, if you’re a criminal defense lawyer or a civil rights lawyer, then you instinctively rolled your eyes the moment you read the phrase “changed their policy.” To what? Do these new policies treat Tasers the way they should be treated — given the studies confirming real risks of heart attacks and skull fractures — as a means of last resort, literally a substitute for a bullet, instead of a more convenient means of obtaining compliance? Or do these new policies merely warn about “extended or repeated Taser exposure” — which some police officers will gladly read as including more than a minute of tasing, and dozens of shocks — with an all-purpose exception for “active resistance,” so the police officers can always claim the suspect was “actively resisting” and thereby comply with the Potemkin policy?

Which brings us to the point of this post. So, you’re a plaintiff’s lawyer, and a client (or their survivor) has just come in after a tasing incident. Now what?

There are three main claims you could bring: (1) excessive force civil rights claims against the cops; (2) a Monell practice or policy claim against the police department; and, (3) a products liability claim in strict liability or negligence against Taser International itself.

Excessive force claims (of all types, not just Tasers) are common; they’re disfavored by federal courts that are a bit too keen on summary judgment, but they’re typically inexpensive to litigate and can provide for attorney’s fees if successful, which is important because the verdicts and settlements are typically fairly low unless the client is brain damaged, paralyzed, or deceased. The real art is in distinguishing strong claims from merely meritorious ones in effectively conveying your own client’s version of events while undermining the police officer’s undoubtedly different version, and in grappling with the tendency of many jurors to believe your client got what was coming to them.

Monell claims are also tough. Courts rarely let any type of civil rights claim get to a jury, and courts are even more strict on Monell claims. There’s little harm in alleging them in the complaint, but get moving in discovery to back them up — and if you can’t back them up, know when to fold them and stop wasting everyone’s time. Truth is, Monell claims are generally not the province of generalist personal injury lawyers doing an occasional police brutality or wrongful prosecution case, they’re more for civil rights and public interest lawyers who have repeatedly seen the same problem and so already have the inside knowledge needed to back up the claims.

Finally, product liability lawsuits in general are not for the faint of heart nor plaintiff’s lawyers on shoestring budgets, and lawsuits directly against Taser International are no exception. Consider this: Taser won the first 60 product liability lawsuits filed against it, going back to the early 1990s, then finally lost one in 2008. Similarly, like with most product liability claims, plaintiffs’ firms should expect to pay $100,000 in costs just to get to a jury and should have the wherewithal to pay $250,000 on a single risky case. Needless to say, that means Taser product liability suits tend to make sense only when your client has been catastrophically injured or when your suit is on behalf of survivors. Study the Fontenot and Rich cases below; if you don’t have a case like that — e.g., a client who died from a heart attack after being tasered in the chest by a cop taught by Taser to go for “center of mass” — then consider forgoing the product liability claim because it’ll just chew up your time and money, reduce the recovery for your client, and create bad law for the rest of us. If you have a case like that but don’t have the ability to prepare or to fund it, refer it to someone who can.

Now, on to the law.


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Sometimes, a police officer’s hunch is right:

Columbia [Missouri] Police Officer Jessica McNabb pulled over then-19-year-old Daniel Sanders at Stadium Boulevard and Audubon Drive for running a red light and failing to use his headlights at night. Sanders didn’t have a license. He asked for an attorney almost immediately.

After a search of the trunk, McNabb found the body of Sanders’ mother beneath a tire — next to a new shovel with the price tag still on it.

Sometimes not:

Jordan Miles, who is black, thought his life was in jeopardy when three white men jumped out of a car on the night of January 11 as he walked not far from his home.

"My son tried to run thinking his life was in jeopardy," Terez Miles said. "He made three steps before he slipped and fell." After that, she said, the [Pittsburgh] police used a stun gun and beat him, pulling out a chunk of his hair.

The criminal complaint says the officers, considering Jordan Miles’ appearance suspicious, got out of the car and identified themselves as police. He tried to flee, fell, and then struggled to escape.

The officers "delivered 2-3 closed fist strikes to Miles’ head/face with still no effect," and then a "knee strike to Miles’ head causing him to momentarily stop resisting," so that he could be handcuffed, the document says.

Miles’ mother said the officers did not identify themselves as police to her son, a viola player and student at the city’s Creative and Performing Arts High School.

The complaint says the police officers believed Miles was engaged in criminal activity and possibly armed with a "large heavy object." The object turned out to be a bottle of Mountain Dew.

There’s a law for both:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Ironically, Daniel Sanders might have a better chance of avoiding a conviction for his mother’s murder than Jordan Miles has of recovering compensation for his injuries.

Last year, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. Gant that the Fourth Amendment prohibits "a vehicle search incident to a recent occupant’s arrest after the arrestee has been secured and cannot access the interior of the vehicle," with a limited exception for such searches "when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle."

Sanders was not pulled over or arrested for his mother’s murder, so the exception doesn’t apply. There’s no doubt that he was "secured" — he didn’t even put up a fight, he just asked for his lawyer.

His lawyer has moved to exclude from the trial all evidence found from the search of Sanders’ car, including, of course, his mother’s body:

In that motion, [Sanders’ lawyer] Slusher said McNabb continued to question Sanders after he asked for an attorney and that the search of the car was conducted without a warrant or probable cause. Slusher characterized the search and the continued questioning as unconstitutional and thus inadmissible in trial.

He might win it. I’m sure the district attorney’s office is burning the midnight oil to find some daylight in Arizona v. Gant.*

Returning to Miles, it’s quite possible that the officers identified themselves as police and that Miles didn’t hear them. Police confrontations are often fraught with confusion. Consider this instance:

Defendant Murphy approached the driver’s side window and asked Plaintiff to produce his identification and credentials for inspection. (Frohner Dep. at 39.) Plaintiff, who kept his credentials in the door pocket of the driver’s side door when driving, (Pl.’s Br. Ex. C at 4), began to reach down to retrieve his credentials. (Frohner Dep. at 39.) As Plaintiff was reaching down, Defendant Murphy shouted at Plaintiff, "keep your hands where I can see them." (Id. at 39-40.) Plaintiff, "[n]ot immediately understanding what was transpiring," continued to reach for his credentials in the door pocket, which prompted Defendant Murphy, who by this time had drawn his firearm, to again shout to Plaintiff to keep his hands in view. (Id. at 39-42.) Plaintiff complied with Defendant Murphy’s second order and ceased reaching down to the door pocket. (Id. at 40.)

Frohner v. City of Wildwood, 07-1174 (D.N.J. 2008).

Plaintiff there — who was almost shot — was an on-duty undercover FBI agent. He was approached by a uniformed police officer who had pulled him over in a marked police car. Yet, even he didn’t "immediately understand what was transpiring."

Consider what Miles would have "immediately understood" when three men in plainclothes jumped out of a car and started chasing him.

To win in a civil lawsuit, though, Miles has to show more than that the officers made a mistake.

First, he has to show his constitutional rights were violated. Then, he must overcome qualified immunity by showing "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 206-07 (3d Cir. 2007). Neither is easy to prove; most plaintiffs alleging violations of their constitutional rights lose their cases.

Miles has two constitutional rights that were potentially violated: the right to be free from false arrest and the right not to be subjected to excessive force during an arrest. I don’t know what about his "appearance" was "suspicious," but the article reports "the police officers believed Miles was engaged in criminal activity and possibly armed with a large heavy object." From that, we can presume their nominal purpose was to perform a Terry v. Ohio stop and frisk to see if the Mountain Dew was an illegal weapon. If either the judge or the jury believes that, then the officers (really, the City of Pittsburgh, which will indemnify them) are free from liability for the false arrest claim.

When it comes to the excessive force claim:

In deciding whether challenged conduct constitutes excessive force, a court must determine the objective reasonableness of the challenged conduct, considering the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Other factors include the duration of the officer’s action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time.

Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 496-97 (3d Cir. 2006). 

Hence the emphasis on the Mountain Dew: the officers want to justify their conduct by arguing "the possibility that the suspect may be armed." It also likely that, at some point, Miles was "actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight," given that he thought he was being assaulted. Such resistance, under excessive force precedent, makes the officers’ punching and kicking less "objectively unreasonable."

After showing all of the above, Miles must also show the judge "it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted" to overcome qualified immunity. Miles can’t just show what the officers did was wrong; he has to show it was so wrong that the officers had to know it was illegal.

Can Miles do that? Maybe so. Then again, a lot of constitutional rights / qualified immunity cases — like Curley v. Klem, in which a police officer was accidentally shot — end with a jury verdict for the defendant and a speech from the appellate court like so:

The mistake Klem made has undoubtedly been terrible in its long-term consequences for Officer Curley and his family, and we do not for a moment discount the pain, sorrow, expense, and frustration that it has visited on them in their innocence. But a mistake, though it may be terrible in its effects, is not always the equivalent of a constitutional violation. … "[P]olice officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Graham, 490 U.S. at 397, 109 S.Ct. 1865. Those were the circumstances facing both Trooper Klem and Officer Curley at the George Washington Bridge toll plaza. Viewed from that perspective, Saucier, 533 U.S. at 205, 121 S.Ct. 2151, the seizure effected by the mistaken shooting was not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. It therefore was not a constitutional violation.

Courts of law, not of justice.


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[UPDATE: The WSJ Law Blog rounds up reactions by the parties, while SCOTUSBlog rounds up reactions from the media and bloggers.]

[UPDATE II: For a peek behind the corporate curtain, see the memo that Republican election lawyer Benjamin L. Ginsberg (of Patton Boggs) is circulating. I think he’s going too far in his conclusions; as much

Years ago, Jonathan Turley, professor at George Washington University Law School, found himself unable to decide whether he wanted to be a professor or a litigator, so he cloned himself to be able to do both.

I am only half-joking; even after factoring in big firm co-counsel (including associates, paralegals, assistants, et cetera), being