(CN) – An officer used excessive force in Tasering an upset, frustrated man who was stopped for not wearing his seatbelt, the 9th Circuit ruled. The judges said Taser use is only justified when it’s clear that “the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public.”
Carl Bryan, 21, was Tasered by Officer Brian McPherson of the Coronado Police Department in San Diego County after being stopped for not wearing his seatbelt. Bryan, who’d had a long day of driving and had already been pulled over once for speeding, began hitting his steering wheel and himself, and yelling at himself.
McPherson ordered Bryan to get out of his car.
The parties agreed that Bryan was “agitated, standing outside his car, yelling gibberish and hitting his thighs, clad only in his boxer shorts and tennis shoes,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote.
McPherson, who was standing 15 to 25 feet away, claimed that Bryan took “one step” toward him, though evidence indicated that Bryan had his back to the officer.
Without any warning, McPherson shot Bryan with his Taser. Bryan fell face-first onto the ground, fractured four of his front teeth and had to be driven to a hospital to have the Taser probes removed with a scalpel.
He sued McPherson, claiming the officer used excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.
The district court rejected McPherson’s assertion of qualified immunity, and the 9th Circuit affirmed.
The Pasadena-based appellate panel ruled that Bryan was not a threat to McPherson, and that the officer’s use of a Taser was unconstitutional.
“The circumstances here show that Officer McPherson was confronted by, at most, a disturbed and upset young man, not an immediately threatening one,” Judge Wardlaw wrote for the three-judge panel.
“While Bryan’s behavior created something of an unusual situation, this does not, by itself, justify the use of significant force,” Wardlaw wrote. “Rather, the objective facts must indicate that the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public.”
A Taser uses compressed nitrogen to shoot a pair of probes tipped with stainless steel barbs toward a target at a rate of 160 feet per second. It delivers a 1,200-volt, low-ampere charge into the muscles that overrides the central nervous system, causing temporary paralysis. Its effects can be extremely painful.