By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court’s ruling that police use of a Taser amounted to unconstitutional excessive force in a case involving a mentally ill man who died after being stunned with the electrical weapon five times in two minutes.
The justices declined to hear an appeal by the North Carolina village of Pinehurst of a January federal appeals court ruling that police can use a Taser only if officers are in immediate danger.
The village was sued by the family of Ronald Armstrong, a man with bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia who died in April 2011 after a confrontation with police.
The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the officers used excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
The court nevertheless ruled that the officers were entitled to legal immunity because they did not violate clearly established law. But the precedent set could have broad ramifications in North Carolina and four other states within the regional appeals court’s jurisdiction if left in place, prompting the village to appeal.
Other appeals courts have ruled differently regarding these weapons, with most finding that police officers have more leeway to use Tasers even when there is not an imminent threat.
Taser International Inc, which manufactures the devices, filed a brief asking the high court to hear the case.
A Taser is a device intended to serve as a non-lethal method of control for law enforcement officers to restrain dangerous people but in some cases the electrical shock can cause death.
Armstrong was not taking his prescribed medication at the time of the incident that led to his death. Police were called when he was seen walking on a road outside a local hospital. After two officers spoke to him, he wrapped his arms and legs around a pole and refused to move, leading one of the officers to use his Taser, which was set to “stun” mode.
It appeared to have no apparent immediate effect on Armstrong, but he died after eventually being pulled away from the pole.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)