Hot Docs: No qualified immunity for Taser-happy police officer

December 2, 2010

Taser X26“Shoot first, ask questions later” is pretty lousy advice for a police officer, even if the weapon of choice isn’t considered lethal – a lesson that one Utah cop is learning the hard way.

The 10th Circuit has ruled that a Utah woman who was Tasered unexpectedly, suffering a brain injury, can sue the municipality and the police officer who Tasered her.

Hot Doc: Cavanaugh v. Woods Cross City (10th Cir.)

Source: Westlaw News & Insight – National Litigation

On a December evening in 2006, a man in Woods Cross City, Utah, summoned local police to help him locate his intoxicated wife, who had stormed out of the house, wielding a knife, after a domestic dispute earlier that evening.

When the woman returned to the house a short while later, one of the officers walked down the driveway to meet her. The woman – who by this time was empty-handed – cut across the front lawn and walked briskly toward the house, with the officer following about six feet behind her.

As she scampered up the steps toward the front door, the officer raised his Taser and discharged it into the woman’s back without a word of warning. The woman went rigid, spun around, and struck her head on the concrete steps with enough force to cause a traumatic brain injury.

The couple later sued the police officer and his employer, Woods Cross City, alleging excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The officer and the city both moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of qualified immunity, ruling that the officer’s action was “objectively unreasonable” given the circumstances and was in violation of established law. In its ruling, the Court noted that

  • the officer was investigating a relatively minor crime,
  • the woman didn’t pose an immediate threat to the officer or anyone else at the scene, and
  • the woman was not resisting nor fleeing arrest – in fact, she had little reason to believe the officers were responding to a crime at all.

For more current “Hot Docs” like this one, plus timely news and analysis of litigation developments around the country, be sure to check out the Westlaw News & Insight – National Litigation website.