Message board comments on last week’s taser incident at a John Kerry town hall meeting show the typical polarizing splits between opposing camps: “the guy was an obnoxious jerk, he deserved to get arrested” versus “this is police brutality and censorship.” The news media has done no better. Most reports merely restate what is more clearly observed in the YouTube video. Some local stations have been eggregious in reporting that the student, Andrew Meyer, had a history of pranks, which is only relevant to sentencing in the event he is convicted on a public nuisance charge; Meyer’s past was clearly not known at the time of his arrest and tasering.
There is a rational conversation that individuals and the media need to raise, and it is twofold: 1.) was the student creating a nuisance, outside the bounds of protected speech, that warranted his arrest, and 2.) if arrest was appropriate, was the use of incapacitating force (tasering) justified.
I’ve watched the video a few times, but I’m not aware of Florida’s public speech (or nuisance) laws to comment on whether the initial arrest was warranted. There are limits to public speech, and more appropriately there are limits as to how you must act in certain public forums. I can’t comment on #1 above.
#2 is a different animal. Was the use of a taser justified? Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement has a very extensive Overview of Electronic Control Devices document that calls for tight regulation, oversight, and officer training in deploying tasers. Still, it’s tough to come to a verdict on the Florida case. They have a clear regulation for the deployment of a dart fired taser, but in this case, the officers had disabled the “dart” capability.
CS/CS/SB 214 (Passed the Legislature May, 2006)
“… specifically requiring that the decision to use the device must involve an arrest or custodial situation during which the person who is the subject of the arrest or custody escalates resistance to the officer from passive physical resistance to active physical resistance and, a) the person either has the apparent ability to physically threaten the officer or others, or b) is preparing or attempting to flee or escape.”
In the UF case though, the arresting officers used the taser as a stand-alone device (think: Cattle Prod). So it isn’t clear that officers were outside their rules of engagement for using the taser. The FDLE document continues…
Regarding the matter of objective reasonableness, the court will consider the following: The severity of the crime; whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others; whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. In addition, the court acknowledges that the right to make an arrest carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof.
There were 6 or 7 officers on the scene. The subject was tased on the ground, and seemingly did not appear to be a threat to officers, himself, or a flight risk. Justifying the use of force will be one for the police and the courts to decide.
Regardless of personal opinions, the most important point the public needs to keep in mind is that it is the government’s burden to justify that they acted appropriately in regards to grounds for arrest and use of force.