Shocking the Conscience: What Police Tasers and Weapon Technology Reveal About Excessive Force Law
74 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 1, 2012
Since Graham v. Connor, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 opinion establishing the Fourth Amendment standard for assessing whether a police officer’s use of force was unconstitutionally excessive, the law has slowly developed through a body of narrow and fact-specific precedents that guide judges’ excessive force and qualified immunity analyses. Recently, the Ninth Circuit — the source of many of the most influential excessive force opinions — decided three contentious cases regarding when an officer’s use of a taser is unconstitutional. On one view, these cases raise novel questions about how to apply the Fourth Amendment standard for nontraditional and technologically advanced uses of force. In this Comment, however, I argue that these cases predominantly present issues that pervade all excessive force jurisprudence and illuminate judicial trends and tendencies disadvantaging plaintiffs while advantaging defendant officers. In light of this understanding, my proposal is not for new rules or standards in taser cases. Rather, I suggest that courts, first, faithfully apply Graham’s standard of balancing the nature and quality of the Fourth Amendment intrusion against the government’s interest in the officer’s use of force and, second, employ a reality-based approach in deciding whether the officer is entitled to qualified immunity. For courts to do this, excessive force jurisprudence must evolve to match the development of police weapons technology. That evolution includes fully understanding and considering the distinctive effects and risks posed by tasers and presuming that a reasonable police officer would have done the same.
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