(CN) - Pennsylvania police officers "acted reasonably" when they Tasered a man carrying a soda bottle full of gasoline, igniting a fire that burned him to death, a federal judge ruled.
After someone broke into her trailer and stole a 50-inch television on March 18, 2009, Patty Rae Ferris told the Pennsylvania State Police that she suspected her ex-boyfriend, 24-year-old Levi Mohney, was the culprit.
When Mohney climbed into the trailer through a window later that evening, Trooper Robert Hageter, Cpl. Louis Davis, and Cpl. Allen Carmichael ordered him to come outside.
The officers then smashed their way in and found Mohney holding a Bic lighter in one hand and a Sierra Mist bottle in the other.
Mohney ignored commands to get on the ground or get Tasered, and Trooper Hageter shot his Taser at Mohney's chest. Almost immediately, Mohney burst into flames.
After Mohney ran outside the trailer and collapsed, the officers extinguished the fire. Mohney said he had filled the soda bottle with gas to burn the trailer furniture.
Over 95 percent of Mohney's body suffered third-degree burns, and he died the next day of thermal and inhalation injuries.
In a March 2011 complaint, Shawn Mohney, the executor of Levi's estate, claimed that the officers knew Mohney was mentally ill, as he had threatened to kill himself twice before the fatal incident.
U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry dismissed the state and its police force from the case in August 2011.
Though McVerry dismissed the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973 claims, he advanced the Fourth and 14th Amendment claims, as well as counts for state survival and wrongful death.
The officers won summary judgment on these issues last week.
Relying on the investigation of State Police Fire Marshal Trooper Greg Agosti, the judge said a jury need not decide whether the officers truly smelled no gasoline.
"The investigation of Trooper Agosti actually supports the testimony of defendants," McVerry wrote. "Agosti reported: 'There was no odor of gasoline inside the room.' Agosti only observed the odor of gasoline 'when I put my nose near the opening of the [Sierra Mist] bottle.' Defendants were several feet away from Mohney and the bottle. In sum, Agosti's report would not justify a reasonable jury to disbelieve defendants' testimony."
McVerry also rejected the excessive force claims.
"At the time the taser was activated, Mohney was standing still and he could not easily escape from the trailer," the 15-page opinion states. "On the other hand, Mohney had refused to come out of the trailer (by mouthing 'no' and retreating from the door); had refused to obey the officers' repeated commands to get on the floor; had assumed a fighting stance; and earlier that afternoon he had evaded arrest by driving through a wheat field. Mohney was warned repeatedly that a taser would be used if he did not submit. The duration of the specific confrontation in the trailer was a matter of seconds. However, officers had been attempting to apprehend Mohney for the majority of the day. The use of the taser took place in the context of effectuating an arrest. Mohney was the only person with whom the police officers had to contend at the time.
"The result of the encounter on the evening of March 18, 2009 was certainly tragic. Nevertheless, even assuming arguendo that the taser ignited the fire, the court concludes that the officers acted reasonably," McVerry added.
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