Video evidence, discharge from TASER device weighed in court

BETTS V. BRENNAN, 2022 WL 101316 (5th Cir. 2022)

This case offers you an unusual opportunity to decide what should happen. A traffic stop with a non-compliant subject quickly turned into a use of force incident – and there is clear video evidence to review. Don’t go too fast until the end. Instead, watch the first few minutes of this Axone video recording. If you want a second view, a security camera outside the building where the arrest took place as well captured the incident.

Did you watch the body camera video recording? Would you have used a TASER device? The incident resulted in a lawsuit against the officer: how would you defend the officer (or yourself if you were sued after a similar incident)? The trial judge said Betts’ resistance was “passive at best.” Do you agree? An understanding of the context, as set out in the court record, can help us answer these questions.

Did the court go the way you predicted?

Did the court go the way you predicted? (Picture/Police1)

The officer pulled over Timothy Betts for speeding 13 mph over the speed limit. The officer asked Betts to get out of his truck and Betts complied for a moment. When the officer told Betts why he arrested him, Betts immediately started arguing. He sat back in the truck with the door open, his body tilted outward. As he continued to argue, Betts said, “It’s okay, I’m not going to argue with you.” The officer asked Betts for his license, insurance and registration.

Still arguing, Betts handed over the documents. The officer backed up and asked Betts to get out of the vehicle and stand in the back of the truck. Betts declined, saying, “I’m fine. I’m not threatening you. The officer then told Betts to “go walk to the back of the truck or I’ll walk you to the back of the truck.” Betts said the officer had no reason or authority to order him to do so. The officer repeatedly told Betts to walk to the back of the truck and Betts refused. As he disobeyed the officer’s order, Betts said, “I’m not disobeying. I’m not threatening you. I’ve done this before. The officer replied to Betts, “For my safety and yours, I ask you to position yourself in the back of the truck.”

In 1977, the United States Supreme Court established a clear rule that an officer can always demand that a driver exit a lawfully stopped vehicle (Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 US 106 (1977)). The Court weighed the driver’s right to privacy against the officer’s right to security in coming to this conclusion. The officer does not need to have any particular suspicions or fears to require the driver to exit the vehicle. Twenty years later, the Court extended its ruling to all passengers in a car lawfully stopped in Maryland v. Wilson (519 US 408 (1997)), although a handful of states have rejected the Mimms/Wilson rule on the constitutional bases of the State. Similarly, the Supreme Court, in Arizona vs. Johnson (555 US 323 (2009)), held that all occupants of a lawfully stopped vehicle may be lawfully detained for the duration of the stop.

Betts started yelling that the officer was lying and threatened, “If you taser me, I’m going to sue you.” The officer grabbed Betts’ arm while again ordering him out. Betts pulled his arm away and told the officer not to touch it. Betts repeated his claim (which you all know to be incorrect) that he didn’t get out of the truck. Betts kicked, got up to walk out, clenched his fist and told the officer he “might want to call [his] people.”

The officer ordered Betts to turn around and put his hands behind his back. Betts stood by the door of the truck, walked away from the officer, and raised his hands above his head. The officer repeatedly ordered Betts to put his hands behind his back, and after several orders, Betts complied. The officer told Betts to turn around, but Betts kept his body tilted. The officer repeated this command several times, warning Betts that he would use a TASER device if Betts did not comply. The officer then fired the TASER device at Betts, hitting his upper leg.

Betts screamed and fell to the ground. The officer handcuffed Betts, warning him that if he continued to resist, the officer would “tase” him again. Betts started shouting profanities: “You just shot me for f——nothing. You owe me, you’re f—— up. I take something away from it. Betts later pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and then sued to “get something.”

The trial court denied qualified immunity to the officer. If you have read Xiphos even for the past six months, you know the qualified immunity test. Many lawsuits alleging excessive force are dismissed after the court decides that qualified immunity should be applied to the officer. An officer deserves qualified immunity unless:

  1. It “violated a statutory or constitutional right of the plaintiff” and
  2. “The law was clearly established at the time of the offence. »

Qualified immunity “gives government officials leeway to make reasonable but erroneous judgments” and “protects all but those who are manifestly incompetent or knowingly violate the law” (Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 US 731 (2011)). The Supreme Court has frequently heard lower courts to refrain from applying the “clear law” component of the qualified immunity analysis to “too high a level of generality”. In other words, unless the lower court can point to compelling judicial precedent that specifically and clearly informs officers how to act, the court should grant qualified immunity.

In this case, the trial court looked at an earlier 5th Circuit Court of Appeals case in which the court denied qualified immunity when an officer arrested a man and ordered him out. of the vehicle and the rear of the car. After a brief argument, the man complied. Standing behind the man with a TASER device drawn, the officer then ordered the man to his knees. When the man asked if he was under arrest, the officer only repeated his order. The officer suddenly lunged forward and struck the man’s back, knocking him to the trunk and to the ground. A police investigation determined that the man was ‘compliant’, that the officer did not tell him if he was under arrest and that the blow to the back was ‘not objectively reasonable’ due to the lack of resistance. Seeing a strong similarity to this case, the trial court denied qualified immunity in this case.

The appeals court, with the benefit of two video recordings, found that the trial court misunderstood both issues in the qualified immunity analysis. First, the court applied the factors of Graham v. Connor (490 US 386 (1989)). the Graham factors take into account:

  1. The seriousness of the crime in question
  2. If the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others; and
  3. If the suspect actively resists arrest or attempts to evade arrest by fleeing.

Applying these factors, the Court of Appeal observed:

  • Betts was arrested for a minor traffic violation. However, the officer was alone and lacked backup.
  • Betts’ constantly confrontational manner created a threat to the agent’s safety.
  • Betts didn’t just argue, ignore a single order, or back away from the officer’s grasp.
  • Betts took a divisive stance initially and things intensified Of the. Betts repeatedly challenged the reason for the stop, ignored dozens of the officer’s orders, challenged the officer’s authority to arrest him and order him out of the truck, claimed the officer was lying, pushed his hand away, warned the officer to call “his people,” and challenged the officer to use a TASER device, threatening to sue.
  • The officer told Betts he wanted him to move to the back of the truck “for my safety and for your safety.”
  • The officer did not use the TASER device as a first resort.
  • The officer “correctly used measured and ascendant actions that matched Betts’ escalating verbal and physical resistance.”
  • The officer tried to get Betts to stand behind the truck first by invitation, then by explanation, then by order, and finally by grabbing his arm.
  • The officer warned Betts more than once that he would use a TASER device if Betts did not comply with his orders.
  • It was only when all of these lesser options seemed to have failed that the officer used a TASER device..
  • The officer used only one cycle of energy from the TASER device to restrain and handcuff Betts.

The appeals court ruled that the force was not unconstitutionally excessive. The court also ruled that the trial court erred in finding that Betts’ situation presented a “clearly established” violation. Noting “some similarities” with the case on which the court of first instance relied, the court of appeal considered that “there are significant differences”.

Did the court go the way you predicted? Did you cite all of the factors that led the court to conclude that the officer acted reasonably and should have qualified immunity? Whether you did or not, take note of the appeals court’s reasoning and consider whether your traffic enforcement practices could benefit from fine-tuning to be more in line with clearly established law.

NEXT: Case Review: Court Sentence Against Agent Deploying TASER

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