(CN) - Philadelphia police may have used excessive force by Tasering a suspected drug dealer until he stopped breathing, causing permanent brain damage, a federal judge ruled.
In February 2011, three undercover Philadelphia Police officers found Kahlif Snowden in an apparent drug deal.
After one of the officers announced "police" and told Kahlif to "come here," Kahlif discarded a pill bottle and began to run away, according to the officers' deposition.
One officer tackled Kahlif to the ground, at which point Officer Donald Vandermay saw Kahlif place a clear plastic bag filled with pink packets containing a white substance inside his own mouth.
Vandermay says he attempted to get Kahlif to spit out the bag by grabbing his throat and pinching the skin underneath his chin for a couple of seconds.
Three other officers arrived, but none could get Kahlif's left hand out from under his body to handcuff him. Officer Robert Shaw was instructed to use his Taser on Kahlif.
After announcing his intention, Shaw - who has since claimed that he knew that Kahlif had something inside his mouth at the time - Tasered Kahlif on the back of his neck four times in a span of 43 seconds, with each trigger pull lasting five seconds.
By the time the officers able to handcuff Kahlif and roll him over onto his side, Vandermay noticed and announced that Kahlif was not breathing.
The officers say that they then placed Kahlif on his back while Shaw began to do chest compressions on him.
Sgt. James Morace, who had arrived as Kahlif was being handcuffed, radioed the fire department's rescue squad, but then decided to drive Kahlif to the hospital himself.
The doctor who removed the plastic bag from Kahlif's throat has stated that Kahlif's inability to breathe during the arrest caused him irreversible brain damage.
Kahlif's father John Snowden sued Philadelphia for numerous violations of Kahlif's civil rights in August 2011.
U.S. District Judge S.J. Buckwalter partially granted the city summary judgment and denied Snowden's cross-motion.
Buckwalter threw out Snowden's false arrest claim, ruling that trained narcotics officers had probable cause after allegedly seeing Kahlif discard a pill bottle.
The judge also ruled against Snowden's excessive force claim.
"The Taser was used before Kahlif stopped breathing, and the testimony suggests that he was struggling and potentially a threat," the 19-page opinion states. "The court is cognizant of the fact that Kahlif is unable to testify himself and that the only witnesses to the incident are the defendant officers. Because, however, there are potential issues of fact such that a reasonable jury could find the officers actions were reasonable, plaintiff's motion must be denied."
Buckwalter also found that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity on Snowden's claim that they failed to provide Kahlif with adequate medical care.
"The contours of the officer's duties, particularly in this hyper-pressurized situation, were not so sufficiently clear that every reasonable officer - even one with training in CPR - would have understood that a failure to check a non-breathing person's airway violates his constitutional rights," Buckwalter wrote.
Philadelphia is immune from suit on all claims.
"The individual actions of Officer Shaw using his Taser and Officer Vandermay grabbing Kahlif's throat alone are insufficient to demonstrate that the city should have been aware of a widespread custom of excessive force," the judge wrote. "Similarly, the inaction of the department to conduct an investigation until after five months had passed by itself is not the type of action that clearly demonstrates that the city was deliberately indifferent to its officers' widespread use of excessive force."
Sgt. Morace must still face claims, however, "as a reasonable jury could potentially still find that he used excessive force."
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