Qualified Immunity for TASER Device Use at a Chaotic and Combative Scene

by | September 23, 2019

Rudley v. Bryant, 2019 (8th Cir. 2019)

Dedra Rudley and her minor son, M.D.B., met with the school principal after M.D.B. suffered a broken clavicle during an altercation at school. The meeting became hostile and the principal asked security officers to escort Rudley and her son off school premises. The principal told a School Resource Officer that Rudley had thrown a book at him. The SRO asked Rudley for her identification. She told him it was in her car, so the SRO and a school security guard escorted Rudley and M.D.B. to the parking lot.

As the group moved toward the parking lot, M.D.B. observed what he claimed was aggression from the SRO toward his mother; the SRO stated M.D.B. threatened him. As the situation escalated, the SRO told M.D.B. he was under arrest. Rudley stepped between the SRO and her son and exclaimed, “Wait a minute .” Rudely stepped toward the SRO as he commanded her “Stop—get back.” The SRO deployed his TASER device in probe mode. M.D.B. moved toward Rudley and the SRO and was physically stopped by the security guard.

Rudley claimed the SRO was kneeling on her back, though the SRO’s video recording showed this to be false. Rudley began to get up and walk away and the SRO energized the TASER device for a second cycle, stating Rudley was under arrest and ordering her to stop resisting. The SRO was able to get Rudley into handcuffs only after pressing the trigger for a third energy cycle. Another officer arrived, arrested M.D.B. and handcuffed him.

The court characterized the circumstances presented to the officers by Rudley and M.D.B. as “aggressive behavior” and a “chaotic and combative” scene.

Rudley sued, alleging excessive force for each of the three TASER device energy cycles and claiming the officers exacerbated M.D.B.’s injuries from his prior school fight. The district court refused to grant qualified immunity. The court of appeals reversed, holding the officers were entitled to dismissal of the action.

The court characterized the circumstances presented to the officers by Rudley and M.D.B. as “aggressive behavior” and a “chaotic and combative” scene. The SRO reasonably believed Rudley had thrown a book at the principal prior to the SRO’s arrival. Rudley physically interposed herself between the SRO and M.D.B. as the SRO was trying to arrest M.D.B. and she refused the officer’s command to get back. The court held a reasonable officer “could have believed that it was important to control the situation and to prevent a confrontation … that could escalate.” Moreover, the video showed M.D.B. physically wrestling with the security guard. The officer who arrived to assist and who handcuffed M.D.B. could reasonably believe that M.D.B. presented a continuing threat. Handcuffing M.D.B. behind his back and applying only the minimal force necessary to handcuff M.D.B. was reasonable.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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