Jail Detainee

Multiple Taser Activations on a Jail Detainee – Is it Reasonable?

Today we look at a case out of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for those officers in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida regarding Taser Activation on a jail detainee.  There are two important issues addressed by the court in this case.  First, and most importantly, is a second Taser activation conducted within eight seconds of the first Taser activation reasonable under the circumstances and, second, the court outlines the different means for reviewing use of force depending on whether the subject is an arrestee, pre-trial detainee in a jail situation, or a post-conviction detainee.

Typically, we discuss the use of force in the context of a street officer using force on a suspect or arrestee.  Under these circumstances, the court reviews the “objective reasonableness” of the force under 4th Amendment guidelines.

In contrast, reviewing the use of force on pre-trial detainees falls under the purview of the 14th Amendment ‘Due Process” protections.  Fortunately, the Supreme Court looked at this issue in Kingsley v Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct 2466 (2015) and determined the test that governs excessive force claims brought under the 14th Amendment is the similar “objective reasonableness” inquiry we use for 4th Amendment claims.  So, let’s take a look at the facts in Piazza v Jefferson County and see what the 11th Circuit had to say about this case.

FACTS

In September 2014, Rick Hinkle was arrested and transported to the Jefferson County Jail.  At the time of his arrest, Hinkle was visibly intoxicated and suffered from heart disease, depression, and alcoholism. The next day Hinkle was transferred to the Birmingham City Jail where he began suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  Hinkle was moved from several cells and finally placed in a cell where he could be watched on a monitor.

Shortly thereafter, Deputy Dukuzumuremyi lost site of Hinkle and called out to him on the loudspeaker.  When Hinkle failed to respond, Deputy Cotten went to the cell and found Hinkle curled up in the corner of the cell wearing only underwear and his shoes. As the Deputy was leading Hinkle to a padded cell, Hinkle broke away to the bathroom and wrapped himself in a shower curtain.  The Deputy removed the shower curtain and attempted to put Hinkle in the padded cell, but he refused.  After the deputies attempted three times to put Hinkle in the cell, Deputy Dukuzumuremyi fired his Taser, striking Hinkle on the left side of his chest. As a result of the taser shock, Hinkle fell to the floor, curled up and urinated on himself.  Eight seconds after the first shock ended, while Hinkle laid on the floor motionless and wet, the Deputy tased Hinkle a second time.  Hinkle went into cardiac arrest and died at the Hospital ER a short time later.

The initial complaint was filed by Anthony Piazza, who is not related Hinkle, but after some dispute over whether Piazza could properly represent Hinkle’s estate, Hinkle’s son, Nyreekis Hunter, replaced Piazza. Hunter brought a Section 1983 claim against the deputies, the Sheriff and the County claiming that Deputy Dukuzumuremyi used excessive force, the other Deputy failed to intervene, both deputies failed to provide proper medical services. He also sued Sheriff Hale and Captain Eddings on a supervisory-liability theory based on the excess-force and deliberate indifference claims. The officers filed a Motion to Dismiss on Qualified Immunity grounds.  The District Court denied the motion with respect to the excessive force claim against Deputy Dukuzumuremyi and the supervisor liability claims against the Sheriff and Captain.  The trial court dismissed the claims brought against the other Deputy.  This appeal followed.

11th Circuit Findings

The court’s first objective was to determine the proper standard for reviewing the Deputy’s use of force.  The constitutional protections provided to detainees differ depending on the detainee’s status.  The 8th Amendment serves as the primary source of protection for excessive force claims brought by post-conviction detainees.  Under this standard, the convict must be able to prove that the officer deliberately used excessive force with a “subjective intent to harm” the plaintiff.

Under the 4th Amendment standards applicable to typical street encounters, the court employs the more familiar “objectively reasonable” standard.  Since Hinkle was considered a pre- trial detainee, the 14th Amendment “due process” protections come into play.  The proper standard of review for this class of plaintiffs had been handled differently by the various circuit courts until the Supreme Court filed its opinion in Kingsley.  Since Kingsley, the courts now employ the objectively reasonable standard for these cases as well.

Against this background, the appellate court reviewed the two uses of the Taser.  There was no question that the first use of the Taser was reasonable.  However, there was also no question, on the court’s part, that the second application of the Taser was clearly UNREASONABLE.  Looking to the facts of this case the court stated:

How do we know, then, when force is reasonable and when it is “excessive in relation to its purpose”? Well, as relevant to this case, our decisions make one thing clear: “Once a prisoner has stopped resisting there is no longer a need for force, so the use of force thereafter is disproportionate to the need . . . It seems to us totally unreasonable to expect that a man who is lying on the floor immobilized—and incontinent—following a taser shock should pep up, roll over, and submit to handcuffing within eight seconds. But, Dukuzumuremyi counters, Hunter’s complaint doesn’t specifically allege that Hinkle “could not” roll over, only that he “did not.” Oral Arg. Tr. 7:45. Come on. The only reasonable inference is that Hinkle, who was lying motionless on the floor after a five-second taser shock—unable to hold his own urine—“did not” immediately roll over because he “could not.” (Really, is there any surer indication of a grown man’s inability to control his bodily functions than his wetting himself?)

The court went on to find that the law in this regard was clearly established at the time of the incident and, therefore, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying Deputy Dukuzumuremyi’s Motion to Dismiss.  The 11th Circuit reversed the ruling related to the Captain and Sheriff, finding that the supervisor liability claims should have been dismissed.

WRAP UP

Each application of the Taser must stand on its own merits to pass the “reasonableness” test.  Furthermore, pre- trial detainees stand in the same shoes as those subjects we deal with on the street.  That is to say, the constitutional protections relegated to each may come from different places (4th Amendment vs the 14th Amendment) but our actions will still be reviewed under the objectively reasonableness standard.

There are three basic elements officers should cover in their use of force reports:

  • The seriousness of the crime committed,
  • The imminent danger to the officer or citizens and
  • The suspect’s level of resistance and/or attempts to flee.

With respect to reporting elements in the detention setting we suggest the following factors be covered:

  • The threat reasonably perceived by the officer
  • Whether the inmate was actively resisting
  • Any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force
  • The severity of the security problem at issue
  • The extent of the inmate’s injury