A federal appeals court this week ruled that a California police officer can be held liable for injuries suffered by an unarmed man he Tasered during a traffic stop. The decision, if allowed to stand, would set a rigorous legal precedent for when police are permitted to use the weapons and would force some law enforcement agencies throughout the state -- and presumably the nation -- to tighten their policies governing Taser use, experts said.
The unanimous ruling, issued Monday by a three-judge panel, stemmed from a 2005 encounter in which a former Coronado, Calif., police officer, Brian McPherson, stopped a man for failing to wear a seat belt while driving. The driver, Carl Bryan, who testified that he did not hear McPherson order him to remain in the car, exited the vehicle and stood about 20 feet away from the officer. Bryan grew visibly agitated and angry with himself, but did not make any verbal threats against McPherson, according to court documents. McPherson has said he fired his Taser when Bryan took a step toward him -- a claim Bryan has denied.
Bryan's face slammed against the pavement when he collapsed, causing bruises and smashing four front teeth.
The appellate court did not rule on whether McPherson acted appropriately, but simply cleared the way for Bryan to pursue a civil case against the officer and the city of Coronado in a lower court. Based on Bryan's version of events, though, the judges found that McPherson used excessive force in firing the Taser, since Bryan did not appear to pose any immediate threat.