(CN) — The 11th Circuit unanimously ruled that an Alabama police officer is not entitled to immunity for an incident in which he repeatedly deployed a Taser on an innocent teenager who was having grand mal seizures at a concert.
Upholding a district court decision, the ruling by a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court paves a path to trial for a federal lawsuit filed by Michelle Lee Helm, who claims officer George Morris of the Rainbow City Police Department tased her daughter for no good reason while the girl was suffering a medical emergency.
The panel rejected Morris and his co-defendants' argument for qualified immunity, a legal protection that generally shields police from being held liable for on-the-job conduct that infringes on a person's rights.
To overcome qualified immunity in a lawsuit against police, a plaintiff has to demonstrate that officers violated clearly established constitutional rights. The 11th Circuit ruled that Helm and her daughter, referred to as T.D.H. in court documents, met that burden by showing a blatantly excessive use of force.
"T.D.H. was not combative, posed no threat to others, and, to the extent she posed a risk to herself, that risk could have been managed by simply holding her head to prevent injury from her uncontrollable movements," U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote for the panel.
The defendant officers are contesting that account, claiming T.D.H. was cussing at them and trying to strike them. Under the pretrial standard at play, Lagoa resolved factual disputes by deferring to the plaintiffs' narrative.
Lagoa was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Andrew Brasher, another Trump appointee, and Adalberto Jordan, a Bill Clinton appointee. Handed down Wednesday, the panel's decision upheld denial of summary judgment motions filed by Morris and other officers.
Morris is accused of excessive force, while several co-defendants, including former Rainbow City Police Chief Greg Carroll, are accused of failing to intervene. Carroll retired from his post in 2016.
T.D.H. has a seizure condition caused by head trauma from a car accident. She suffered incapacitating seizures while attending a concert in Rainbow City with her younger sister and friends in 2015. Carroll and other policemen responded by trying to hold her down while summoning paramedics.
Officer Morris later arrived, screamed at the girl to calm down and brandished his Taser at the then-17-year-old. Morris tased her three times in "drive stun" mode, where an electric shock is applied through direct contact with the Taser, rather than through the device's projectile probes, according to the ruling.
Morris claims he was not made aware of the girl's medical condition and thought he was dealing with an "out of control" woman. That narrative is in dispute, as the lawsuit maintains Morris was told the youth was having seizures.
The officer testified during a deposition that the teenager was at times swearing at police, "bucking around" and "thrashing," which led him to believe she was not experiencing a medical event.
On appeal, Morris cited a trio of 11th Circuit cases in which the court found no excessive use of force in certain instances where officers subdued people experiencing psychiatric episodes, medical events or drug-induced delirium.
Lagoa ruled, however, that "none of the cases Officer Morris relies on are on all fours with this case." The judge noted that the subjects in the cited cases resisted arrest or exhibited dangerous behavior like running into traffic.
Helm's daughter, by contrast, was neither endangering the public nor disobeying police, Lagoa wrote.
"Officer Morris’s use of his taser in drive stun mode, which is meant only to inflict pain, while four men held her down was unnecessary to alleviate T.D.H.’s medical condition or facilitate medical care," Lagoa wrote. The judge noted that she is viewing the facts in a light favorable to the plaintiffs given that she is conducting a summary judgment analysis.
Carroll and two other defendants accused of failure to intervene contended that the incident was chaotic and happened quickly, and that they consequently were not poised to stop Morris from shocking the girl with his Taser.
Lagoa rejected the argument. She found that Carroll and the two co-defendants were holding down the teenager while Morris was tasing her and could have instructed him to stop.
Notably, the district court had found that Carroll only has to face a failure-to-intervene claim for the first round of tasing since he was not present for Morris's subsequent uses of the weapon.
Helm, the alleged victim's mother, also has counts pending for excessive force. She alleges that upon receiving a call about her daughter's condition at the concert, she rushed to the venue and witnessed the police holding the girl down. As she ran towards her daughter, police tackled her, handcuffed her and placed her face-down on the ground, according to the lawsuit. A nonparty officer then tased her as well.
Helm was initially charged with disorderly conduct in connection with the incident. The case against her was dismissed without prosecution.
Dr. Arthur Grant, director of SUNY Downstate's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, said in an interview that it is common for people emerging from a seizure to become agitated if they are restrained against their will.
"Somebody in a post-ictal state might not acquiesce to a police officer's instructions because they are confused and disoriented and don't even realize what's going on. So they try to break free, and then obviously a vicious cycle ensues," Grant said.
Grant said it is a challenge to educate first responders about the spectrum of post-seizure behavior because it can overlap with that of psychosis or drug overdose. If police are informed that a subject with a seizure disorder is experiencing an episode, they typically should not aggressively confine the person, he said.
"I think it would be helpful and effective for first responders to learn that once a person with epilepsy has had a seizure, for the next half-hour or so, they could be confused or agitated, but that does not mean they are going to try to hurt anybody," said Grant.
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