The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to take another look at a case involving a Louisiana man who died after police stunned him with a Taser at least eight times while handcuffed.
The wrongful death case, Thomas v. Nugent, was brought on behalf of the young son of the man killed in the incident, Baron Pikes. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, finding it wasn't clear that Officer Scott Nugent had violated Pikes' constitutional rights; as The Associated Press reports, the court explained that an officer is typically granted immunity from lawsuits unless the officer violates such rights, and those rights must be clearly established at the time of the incident.
What exactly happened to Pikes? And what did the 5th Circuit do wrong, according to the Supreme Court?
Wrongful Death Suit Follows Officer's Acquittal
Baron Pikes was wanted for possession of crack cocaine when Officer Scott Nugent of the Winnfield, Louisiana, Police Department spotted Pikes walking on the sidewalk. After a short chase, Pikes was detained at gunpoint by Nugent and other officers.
Pikes refused to walk, so Nugent shot him with a Taser. Pike was subsequently stunned at least seven more times over the next 14 minutes, and died at the hospital later that night.
Nugent was fired and charged with manslaughter. After Nugent's acquittal, Latrina Thomas, the mother of Pikes' son, sued for wrongful death on behalf of the child. A federal district court allowed the lawsuit to proceed despite Nugent's assertion of qualified immunity, but the 5th Circuit dismissed the case.
Remand Follows Tolan v. Cotton
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion in a factually similar case also arising from the 5th Circuit. In Tolan v. Cotton, a young man was shot by police after they mistakenly believed he was driving a stolen vehicle. As in Thomas v. Nugent, the 5th Circuit ruled that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity for his actions.
However, in remanding Tolan to the 5th Circuit, the Supreme Court found that the appeals court had failed to construe the facts of the case in the light most favorable to the injured party, as required by law. Instead, the 5th Circuit had relied on the officer's version of the facts to construct the context for their finding that the officer acted reasonably, the High Court explained.
In Monday's ruling in Thomas, the Supreme Court again vacated the 5th Circuit's ruling and remanded it for further consideration in light of its opinion in Tolan v. Cotton.
"This is a monumental victory in a case we've been fighting for six years," Thomas' attorney told the AP. "But our work is not over. We will continue to take it one step at a time, and we're prayerful that this young man's life will not have been taken in vain."
- How to File a Police Taser Lawsuit (FindLaw's Injured)
- Another Taser Lawsuit, Another Qualified Immunity Finding (FindLaw's U.S. Sixth Circuit Blog)
- No Qualified Immunity for Sweep Kicking Cop (FindLaw's U.S. Eighth Circuit Blog)
- When Are Police Allowed to Use Tasers? (FindLaw's Blotter)