In 2018, Louisiana State Police Trooper Ross Brennan stopped Tim Betts for speeding and asked him to step out of his vehicle. Betts initially complied but disagreed about speeding and returned to his vehicle. Brennan asked Betts to stand at the back of his vehicle but Betts refused, saying that he was not causing any threats to the officer.
Betts continued to argue and stated that if he was tased, he would sue. After several minutes of arguing, Betts exited his vehicle. Brennan asked him to turn and face him and Betts remained standing at a 45* angle. Brennan gave several more commands to turn and face him and told Betts he would be tased if he disobeyed the order. When Betts refused to turn around, Brennan deployed his taser one time and placed him under arrest. If you want to watch the encounter, it is captured in the first 5 minutes of Brennan’s body cam below.
Betts filed a §1983 lawsuit against Brennan and the district court denied summary judgement for the officer. It concluded his use of force was objectively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because Betts had been stopped for a minor traffic infraction, posed no threat or flight risk, and was “at most” passively resisting when he was tased. The trial court also found Brennan’s actions were clearly established as unlawful by another 5th court decision (Hanks). The 5th reversed the District Court finding and granted summary judgement to the Trooper.
The 5th addressed both prongs of qualified immunity in this case.
A. Constitutional violation
A constitutional violation occurs when an arrestee suffers an injury that results directly and only from the officer’s clearly excessive and objectively unreasonable use of force. Our vantage point is the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Various factors guide the analysis, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Additionally, we consider the relationship between the need for force and the amount of force used.
The 5th focused on the “whether he is actively resisting arrest” prong above and noted that the line between active and passive resistance can be hazy and must be judged in light of the fact intensive nature of the inquiry. The 5th disagreed that the resistance in this case was passive.
Betts did not just mouth off at Brennan, ignore one of his orders, or move away from his grasp. Rather, as the video shows, Betts adopted a confrontational stance at the outset and things got worse from there. Betts repeatedly contested why he was stopped, ignored dozens of Brennan’s commands, disputed Brennan’s authority, accused him of lying, batted away his hand, warned Brennan to call other officers, and dared Brennan to tase him.
Most importantly, Betts repeatedly disputed Brennan’s power to order him to stand behind the truck. Brennan did not tase as a first resort and only tased one time as Bates then complied with the officer. In sum, the 5th concluded that Trooper Brennan did not violate the Fourth Amendment by tasing Betts one time in order to arrest him.
B. Clearly established prong
A right is clearly established only if it is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right. To give officers that notice, the relevant law must not be defined at a high level of generality, but instead with specificity.
The district court reasoned the unlawfulness of Brennan’s single tase was clearly established by Hanks. In Hanks, an officer stopped Hanks and ordered him to exit his vehicle. After arguing for about a minute, Hanks eventually complied with the officer’s orders to walk behind the vehicle, place his hands on the trunk, and put his hands behind his head.
Standing behind Hanks with taser drawn, the officer then ordered Hanks to go to his knees. Hanks responded “for what?” and asked whether he was under arrest, but the officer only repeated his command. Hanks then made a small lateral step with his left foot, his hands remaining behind his back. The officer suddenly rushed towards Hanks and administered a blow to Hanks’s upper back or neck, knocking him onto the trunk and to the ground. Hanks was then handcuffed and issued a traffic ticket.
The 5th noted the following differences between Hanks and this case:
1. Although he did argue initially with the officer, Hanks complied with his order to walk behind his car. By contrast, Betts repeatedly resisted a similar order and remained near the
2 Hanks offered no physical resistance. But Betts batted the officer’s hand away and said, “Don’t touch me.”
3. Hanks merely asked the officer questions, like whether he was under arrest or why he had to “go to his knees.” Betts did much more: he warned the officer to call in backup, accused him of lying, and dared him to use his taser.
4. Hanks was blindsided by an abrupt and unwarned blow to his back. Betts, though, was repeatedly warned he would be tased and was tased only after failing to comply with numerous orders.
5. A police investigation found that Hanks was “compliant,” that the officer’s blow was unreasonable, and that “a Taser Deployment” might have been reasonable. By contrast, Betts was repeatedly noncompliant, was tased and not struck, and later pled guilty to resisting arrest.
Thus, the 5th circuit did not find that it was clearly established that Trooper Brennan’s actions here were unreasonable.
A) Courts will look to how fast you resorted to tasing in their analysis. There is no magic number of seconds or minutes (if any) to wait before acting. In some cases, you may have no choice based on the facts but to immediately deploy your taser.
In other cases, like here, you have some time to try and reason with the person, explain reason for removal out of the car (safety), and explain that non compliance will result in tasing (warning). All of those factors will go towards reasonableness of your actions to the courts.
B) If you do need to deploy your taser, you should deploy until the subject is no longer a threat. The Trooper only used his taser one time in this case as the subject then complied and was no longer a threat. This also goes a long way towards reasonableness of your actions with the courts.