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Immunity Granted: He Didn't Know He Couldn't Tase Handcuffed Perp

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 09, 2013 4:36 PM

Officer Anton Mark was involved in a de minimis incident with Plaintiff Miles LaCross in 2006. Officer Mark suspected that LaCross, who appeared to be a minor, and who had a female companion, may have been consuming alcohol. The parties discussed the matter, and at some point, LaCross ended up in the back of the squad car.

That’s the civilized version. What really happened was probably a bit more … confrontational. LaCross was zapped with a Taser while handcuffed in the back of a the squad car. LaCross says that it was unprovoked. Officer Mark says that LaCross kicked at the car’s windows, spat, and attempted to bite him.

The court also noted, in a footnote, that while the Taser was used three times. “LaCross challenges only the Taser application that occurred while he was handcuffed and seated in the squad car.”

LaCross' alleged injuries included anxiety and bruises for the handcuffs.

LaCross filed suit in September 2010, alleging a number of state and federal claims. The district court culled the herd down to a single § 1983 excessive force claim, then granted summary judgment to Officer Mark based on qualified immunity. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The key to qualified immunity, in this case, was de minimis injury and de minimis force.

A qualified immunity inquiry involves two questions: whether the facts shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional or statutory right, and whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct.

Both courts focused on the second inquiry -- the clearly established right.

In Chambers v. Pennycook, the court addressed the question of whether a de minimis injury foreclosed a suit for excessive force. However, the relevant inquiry isn't the ends, it's the means. "[A]lthough a de minimis use of force is insufficient to support a claim, a de minimis injury does not necessarily foreclose a claim."

That means-versus-ends distinction wasn't clarified until Chambers in 2011. That means, as of the 2006 Taser incident, "a reasonable officer could have believed that as long as he did not cause more than de minimis injury to an arrestee, his actions would not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment."

No established right? No lawsuit.

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