The Taser Cases Trilogy in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is bizzare indeed. Imagine, a three judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit holds that the use of a taser in a case against the City of Coronado, was clearly unreasonable and violative of the victims’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Several months later, judges from the same three-judge panel hold that a reasonably well trained officer would not have been in sufficient notice that such conduct was a federal constitutional violation, so the officers walked, even though the taser victims Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
In the Ninth Circuit’s first taser case, Bryan v. McPherson(9th Cir. 09), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that using a taser on a man in his underwear who was 20 feet away and merely verbally going-off on the police officers, was so obviously unlawful, that no reasonably well trained police officer could have believed that it was constitutional to tase the man.
Two weeks later, in Mattos v. Argarano (9th Cir. 1/12/10), another three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police tasing of a domestic violence victim did not constitute unreasonable force, since the police were trying to grab the her husband, and she happened to just be between the man and the police. The Mattos court held that their decision didn’t conflict with the Bryan v. McPherson (9th Circuit 12/28/09), because the use of the taser in that case was so obviously unreasonable, that the defendant police officers would not be entitled to qualified immunity from suit.
Thereafter, two and one-half months later in Brooks v. City of Seattle (9th Cir. March 26, 2010), the Ninth Circuit held that it didn’t constitute the use of unreasonable force for a police officer to tase a pregnant woman three times in her neck to get her out of her car. Having now painted themselves into a corner, the Ninth Circuit decided to grant “en banc review” of all three 2010 taser cases; one en banc panel of judges decided the rehearings of the Mattos v. Argarano and Brooks v. City of Seattle cases, and one en banc panel reheard the Bryan case. The results were almost as confounding, as were the original wrongly decided decisions. In the Mattos and Brooks cases, the Ninth Circuit held that although the defendant police officers did violate the plaintiffs’ Constitutional right to be free from the use of unreasonable force upon their persons (i.e. the tasers), that the officers were nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity from suit, because the law on the use of tasers was not clearly established at the time of the Constitutional violations:
“We now hold that, although Plaintiffs in both cases have alleged constitutional violations, the officer Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiffs 1983 claims because the law was not clearly established at the time of the incidents.”
In the rehearing on the Bryan v. McPherson case, the Ninth Circuit reversed themselves, and awarded qualified immunity to the defendant officers; also because the law regarding the use of tasers was not clearly established at the time of the Constitutional violations:
“Officer MacPherson appeals the denial of his motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. We affirm the district court in part because, viewing the circumstances in the light most favorable to Bryan, Officer MacPhersons use of the taser was unconstitutionally excessive. However, we reverse in part because the violation of Bryans constitutional rights was not clearly established at the time that Officer MacPherson fired his taser at Bryan on July 24, 2005.”
LESSON LEARNED? YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS ONLY EXIST TO THE EXTENT THAT YOU CAN ENFORCE THEM IN THE REAL WORLD.
So, what’s our lessor for today? In the real world, the only rights that you have are those that you can enforce. The enforcement of basic Fourth Amendment rights, like the right not to be subjected to unreasonable force, only exists if you have a video recording of the incident, or some other “real evidence” to prove that the police are lying. Otherwise, they can do with you what they wish to.
Jerry L. Steering