On January 11, 2016, the Fourth Circuit
Court of Appeals ruled in Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst
that the use of tasers by police can be excessive force under the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit found that the Pinehurst, North Carolina police department's use of a taser on a mentally ill man who was exercising passive resistance was not objectively reasonable. Although the police officers in this case were entitled to qualified immunity, the use of a taser in this case was excessive because the police officers did not "perceive some immediate danger that could be mitigated by using the taser."
In this case, Mr. Ronald Armstrong, who suffers from bi-polar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, needed mental health treatment. Armstrong had been off his medication and his sister found him poking holes through the skin on his leg "to let the air out." Armstrong's sister convinced him to go check himself into the hospital for treatment, but when he was being evaluated, he got scared and ran away. The doctors concluded that he was a danger to himself and issued an involuntary commitment order to compel his return to the hospital. The doctors did not conclude that he was a danger to the public.
police went to find Armstrong and take him back to the hospital. He was not suspected of any crime. Three Pinehurst police officers found Armstrong at an intersection close to the hospital. When they tried to take him into custody, he wrapped his arms and legs around a stop sign and refused to let go. Armstrong never physically threatened the Pinehurst police officers. After only 30 seconds of trying to verbally convince Armstrong to return to the hospital, the Pinehurst police prepared to tase him. The Pinehurst police then tased him five times over the course of a two-minute time period. After that didn't work, the Pinehurst police, assisted by two security guards, pulled Armstrong off of the stop sign and handcuffed him face down on the ground. Armstrong soon stopped moving altogether and was later pronounced dead.
The Fourth Circuit clarified that "'physical resistance' is not synonymous with 'risk of immediate danger.'" However, the police in this case were entitled to qualified immunity because the law regarding the use of tasers was not "clearly established" at the time of the incident. The Fourth Circuit believes that it has cleared up any confusion with its decision in this case. "Law enforcement officers should now be on notice that such taser use violates the Fourth Amendment."