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Appeals Court Issues Guidelines For Use Of Force In Non-Criminal Emergencies

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Facing a medical emergency and a use-of-force dilemma, did this sheriff’s deputy do the right thing?

The deputy, working road patrol for the Oakland County (MI) SO, responded one June afternoon to a call at a residence near Detroit where four paramedics were struggling to help a man overcome a life-threatening diabetic crisis.

According to later documents in the case, a finger prick had established that his blood-sugar level was “extremely low at 38,” the normal range being 60-110. Left untreated, the “medical emergency” could “lead to prolonged seizure and death.”

But when the deputy arrived, the man was on a bed, “combative and confused,” vigorously fighting the paramedics’ efforts to insert an IV catheter into his arm so they could administer dextrose to stabilize his condition.

When they finally did get the catheter in, with all four of them trying to hold him down, the “completely disoriented” subject “swung a fist” toward one medic and “ripped the catheter from his arm, causing blood to spray from the open vein.” They managed to stop the bleeding, but the man “continued to kick, swing, and swear at the paramedics” as they tried in vain to control him.

The deputy had encountered more than a dozen diabetic emergencies in his career and knew the pattern. When verbal directions to “relax” didn’t settle the man, the deputy went to his CEW. He did not know “everything that [might be] going on medically,” he later explained, and figured his CEW was a “better option than ‘hands-on stuff’” to “minimize damage.”

After a warning was ignored, he “then deployed his Taser in drive-stun mode directly to [the subject’s] right thigh…for a few seconds.” The thrashing man “calmed down long enough” for a paramedic to reestablish the IV. As the dextrose kicked in, one of the medics noted, the patient “became an angel” and was “very apologetic.”

At the hospital, his blood-sugar level measured within the normal range.

There was general acknowledgement that the Tasering likely “enabled the paramedics to save [the man’s] life.”

Enter the inevitable lawsuit….

IMMUNITY ISSUE

Some seven months after the incident, the man filed a complaint in US District Court, alleging that the deputy had violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force against him and, additionally, was guilty under state law of assault and battery. The deputy’s actions, he claimed, had inflicted burns on his right thigh and caused his diabetes to worsen.

The deputy asked for a summary judgment dismissing the suit on grounds of qualified immunity, but the district judge ruled against him.

The deputy’s use of the CEW in those circumstances was “objectively unreasonable,” the judge concluded, under the guidelines for evaluating justifiable force established by the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor. The man in medical distress had committed no crime, was not resisting arrest, and posed no direct threat. “[A]ny danger could have been eliminated by simply stepping away” from the violent individual, the judge stated.

Therefore, he decreed, the case should proceed to trial.

APPELLATE VIEW

Reviewing matters on the deputy’s appeal, however, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 6th circuit saw things quite differently. In a decision rendered last month [Apr., 2017], the panel ruled that the deputy “did not use excessive force” when he deployed his CEW.

Granted, he was not facing violent resistance by a criminal, the panel said, but the district judge in narrowly applying Graham factors to law enforcement in a medical emergency failed to see “the overall standard of objective reasonableness.”

To have “stepped away” from the situation “would have had potentially fatal consequences,” so “some degree of force…was reasonably necessary to protect the paramedics and, more importantly, to save [the man’s] life,” the panel explained. In short, he “needed to be subdued” in order to receive life-saving assistance.

“Four paramedics were unable to physically restrain [the man], whose health was rapidly deteriorating and who was unresponsive to [the deputy’s] command to ‘relax.’” The paramedics were “put in immediate physical danger by [the patient’s] combative actions” and everyone present, including the deputy, “were at risk due to the blood spraying from [the man’s] arm.” Plus, the subject’s “mental and physical state” rendered him “a threat to his own safety.”

Under the circumstances, the panel ruled, “We conclude that a reasonable officer on the scene, without ‘the 20/20 vision of hindsight,’ would be justified in taking the same actions” as the deputy had.

The justices noted that “no appellate court has previously provided any guidance on how to assess objective reasonableness in the…atypical situation of a medical emergency.” So they offered a three-question test to guide courts in assessing such cases in the future:

  1. Was the person experiencing a medical emergency that rendered him incapable of making a rational decision under circumstances that posed an immediate threat of serious harm to himself or others?
  2. Was some degree of force reasonably necessary to ameliorate the immediate threat?
  3. Was the force used more than reasonably necessary under the circumstances (i.e., was it excessive)?

“If the answers to the first two questions are ‘yes,’ and the answer to the third question is ‘no,’ then the [involved] officer is entitled to qualified immunity.”

The panel cautioned that it was not holding that a law enforcement officer is “always justified in using a Taser to gain control over a person suffering from a medical emergency.”

But in the case of the Michigan deputy, the judges declared that he did act in an objectively reasonable manner under those circumstances. Thus they reversed the judgment of the District Court and sent the case back there “with instructions to dismiss the complaint.”

By then, the man who originally brought the suit had died from complications from his diabetes.

The appellate decision in this case, Estate of Corey Hill v. Christopher Miracle, can be read in full, free of charge, by clicking here. The overturned District Court decision is available by clicking here.

Our thanks to Michael Brave, CEW Legal Director for Axon Enterprise (formerly, TASER International, Inc.), for alerting us to this case.

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