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Media Alerts - The Estate of Ronald Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst -- Fourth Circuit
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January 28, 2016
  The Estate of Ronald Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst -- Fourth Circuit
Tread Carefully with Taser: Court Limits Officers' Use of Tasers in Non-Violent Situations

Areas of Law: Civil Rights, Criminal Procedure

Issues Presented: Whether Pinehurst police officers used excessive force in their encounter with Ronald Armstrong, and if so, whether their actions are protected by qualified immunity.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Pinehurst officers were protected by qualified immunity for their actions that led to the death of Ronald Armstrong. While the court did hold that the officers used excessive force when they "tased" Armstrong five times and pushed him to the ground, the Court found that the right to not be "subjected to tasing while offering stationary and non-violent resistance" was not sufficiently settled at the time such that every reasonable officer would have understood the right to exist. Because the right was not settled at the time, the Fourth Circuit upheld the District Court's grant of summary judgment for the officers.

Extended Summary: Ronald H. Armstrong suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. On April 23, 2011, Armstrong stopped taking his prescribed medication and began harming himself. Fearing for his safety, Armstrong's sister convinced Armstrong to check in to a local hospital. Armstrong eventually left the hospital and the examining doctor issued an involuntary commitment order, deeming Armstrong "mentally ill and dangerous to self" but not dangerous to others, on the commitment form.

Pinehurst police officers Gatling, McDonald, and Sheppard responded to the scene and found Armstrong wandering in an intersection near the hospital. The officers, along with two hospital security guards and Armstrong's sister, convinced Armstrong to leave the roadway and engaged him in conversation until the commitment order was finalized. Under North Carolina law, the officers were required to wait until the commitment order was finalized before taking action. Once the order was completed, the officers advanced on Armstrong and he wrapped his arms and legs around a nearby stop sign post. Officers attempted to pull Mr. Armstrong off the post for approximately 30 seconds, but were unsuccessful.

After this initial attempt, the officers began to utilize other methods to remove Mr. Armstrong from the pole. Officer Gatling utilized his taser - set to "drive stun mode" - five times "over a period of approximately two minutes." Drive stun mode is designed to be "used as a pain compliance tool" and not one that overrides the central nervous system. The tasing was unsuccessful and actually increased Armstrong's resistance, so all five officers pulled Armstrong off the post. Officers subdued Armstrong "by placing a knee on his back and standing on his back," and handcuffed both his arms and legs.

When officers began to collect Mr. Armstrong to return him to the hospital, his sister observed that he had become unresponsive. The officers turned Armstrong over and, saw that his "skin had turned a bluish color and he did not appear to be breathing." Officers radioed for Emergency Medical Services personnel and Armstrong was taken to the hospital's emergency department, but he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital. Approximately 6 1/2 minutes passed between the finalization of Armstrong's commitment papers and the call for Emergency Services.

Armstrong's estate filed a complaint against each officer in the Superior Court of Moore County, North Carolina, alleging excessive force in violation of Armstrong's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The officers removed the case to the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. The District Court subsequently held that the officers' use of force was reasonable and granted summary judgment for the officers on those grounds.

Armstrong's estate appealed to the Fourth Circuit, alleging that the officers used excessive force and were not protected by qualified immunity. The Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court on the issue of excessive force and held that the officers' use of force was not reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. However, the court upheld the grant of summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity, holding that Armstrong's right not to be tased in those circumstances was not sufficiently established at the time of his death.

The Fourth Circuit considered three factors in weighing the use of force; the factors were listed in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). Those factors were (1) the severity of the crime at issue, (2) whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and (3) whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest by flight. The court concluded that these factors, specifically the second and third factors, permitted a limited use of force because of Armstrong's erratic behavior and potential danger to himself, but the level of force used was not objectively reasonable and thus violated Armstrong's Fourth Amendment rights. The court specifically pointed to the use of a taser in a situation that "does not raise a risk of immediate danger" as justification for concluding the officers used unreasonable force.

Nonetheless, the court ultimately upheld the District Court's grant of summary judgment. While the District Court held the officers did not use excessive force, the Forth Circuit concluded that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. In making that decision, the Fourth Circuit considered whether (1) the officers violated Armstrong's constitutional protections, and (2) if so, whether the violated protections were "clearly established" and "within the knowledge of a reasonable person." The court defined the precise right at issue in Armstrong's case to be "Armstrong's right not to be subjected to tasing while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to a lawful seizure."

The Fourth Circuit noted that "substantial case law indicated that [the officers] were treading close to the constitutional line." However, the court drew a distinction between existing case law on non-violent resistance and Mr. Armstrong's case, noting that "[it] would not necessarily have been clear to every reasonable officer that [cases which prohibit using force without first warning an individual who was non-compliant] applied to force inflicted after warning an individual exhibiting non-violent resistance to desist and discontinued before that individual was secured." Because the court found sufficient ambivalence in case law for how to respond to non-violent resistance from a mentally ill patient, the court held that Armstrong's right was not sufficiently established such to deprive the officers of qualified immunity.

Even with this holding, the Fourth Circuit sought to provide clarity in similar situations going forward. The court conducted a lengthy discussion on the use of tasers in varying circumstances, and ultimately concluded that a taser is analogous to a gun or baton and thus "may only be deployed when a police officer is confronted with an exigency that creates an immediate safety risk and that is reasonably likely to be cured by using the taser." The court concluded by noting that the officers in Armstrong's case would no longer be protected by qualified immunity if they or other officers use a taser in similar circumstances in the future.

Judge Wilkinson wrote a concurring opinion that joined the decision of the majority but differed in its underlying logic. Judge Wilkinson noted he was "happy" to join the majority in its judgment because the officers' conduct in causing the death of Mr. Armstrong was not the kind "that merited an award of monetary judgment." Judge Wilkinson criticized the majority for "opin[ing] on the merits of the excessive force claim" because the majority's standard "will be of less than limited help to officers wondering what exactly they may and may not do." Ultimately, the judge concluded that Armstrong did in fact pose some danger to himself and others, as shown by the possibility that he could have "bolt[ed] into the street" and caused a fatal accident. He ultimately wrote that the District Court was correct in granting summary judgment on the grounds that the officers did not use excessive force.

To read the full text of this opinion, please click here.

Panel: Thaker, Keenan, and Wilkinson (concurring)

Argument Date: 10/28/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/11/2016

Docket Number: 15-1191

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Benjamin Garmoe, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Karonnie R. Truzy, CRUMLEY ROBERTS, LLP, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant. Dan McCord Hartzog, CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: David J. Ventura, CRUMLEY ROBERTS, LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant. Dan M. Hartzog, Jr., CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina; Michael J. Newman, VAN CAMP, MEACHAM & NEWMAN PLLC, Pinehurst, North Carolina, for Appellees.

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 01/28/2016 04:07 PM     4th Circuit  

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