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Police power to use stun guns left unclear

The Supreme Court, choosing not to review a compromise decision of a federal appeals court, on Tuesday left police around the nation with no final guidance on the legality of their use of a Taser — a device that can stun an unruly or disobedient suspect into immobility, or at least inflict a considerable amount of temporary pain.   Without comment, the Justices turned aside four separate petitions, raising both sides of the issue: whether such stun guns’ use is a kind of excessive force by police in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and whether police are entitled to legal immunity for their past use of such a device.

The Court’s action settles nothing on either question.  Thus, police in various parts of the country will have to check what the federal or state courts in their area have ruled on the subject — if they have.  As of now, the lower courts are split on the constitutionality of Taser technology as a method of police control.

In Tuesday’s orders, the Court voted to leave intact a Ninth Circuit Court ruling declaring that it violates the Fourth Amendment to use a Taser to subdue a suspect, at least when the crime the police are investigating is not a serious one, the suspect does not pose an immediate threat to the safety of officers or bystanders, and the suspect is not “actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest” by fleeing.   Those are not exclusive factors, though, the Circuit Court said, and, in fact, it found the use of a Taser was excessive even in one case where the suspect did mildly resist arrest.

In one case before the Circuit Court, police officers in Seattle used three quick bursts of a Taser (in the non-demobilizing mode) to subdue a pregnant woman who had been stopped for driving too fast near a school.  In the other case, police officers in Maui, Hawaii, used a stun gun in its strongest mode to disable a woman involved in a domestic dispute with her husband.   In each case, the Circuit Court ruled that the use of the technology, in the specific circumstances of the two cases, was “unreasonable” in a Fourth Amendment sense.

But, the Circuit Court went on to conclude that the Fourth Amendment right was not clearly established at the time of these two incidents — November 2004 in the Seattle incident, August 2006 in the Maui incident.   The Justices, without comment, denied review of Daman v. Brooks (11-898), Agarano v. Mattos (11-1032), Brooks v. Daman (11-1045), and Mattos v. Agarano (11-1165).

The Court did grant one new case, Marx v. General Revenue Corp. (11-1175), involving a dispute over a college student’s loan.  The Justices apparently took that case to sort out the governing legal standard on when court costs may be awarded in a case involving a claim under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.   A provision of that Act allows judges to approve reimbursement of courts costs to the winner if the lawsuit had been brought “in bad faith and for the purpose of harassment.”  But a general provision of federal court procedures (Rule 54(d)) does not allow an award of costs unless a federal law expressly permits it.  That raises the question of whether, if a debt collection claim was not filed in bad faith or to harass, whether costs may be awarded.

The Tenth Circuit Court, in a ruling that conflicts with other federal appeals courts’ decisions, upheld an award of costs against the student debtor even though there was no finding that she had sued a debt-collection agency in bad faith or to harass it.   The student, Olivea Marx of Colorado, sued the collector — General Revenue Corp. — for seeking out information from her employer about her job status, to which she claimed it was not entitled under the federal law.   She lost the case in federal court, and costs were awarded to General Revenue.   Her case will be heard and decided by the Justices in the new Term starting October 1.  (The Court accepted only the costs issue for review; it thus denied review of a separate question raised in the case, about the legality of the contact with her employer.)

General Revenue is a subsidiary of “Sallie Mae,” or the SLM Corporation, the Virginia-based government-sponsored firm that makes, services and collects private loans to students, and operates nationwide.

Among the cases that the Court refused on Tuesday to hear, there was a constitutional dispute over the state of Minnesota’s legal right to make a claim to recover funds from the designer of the interstate highway bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007, with the recovery to offset money that the state had paid out to victims or their survivors.  That case was Jacobs Engineering Group v. Minnesota (11-1074).   The Court also turned down the latest in a series of appeals by persons seeking to revive their damages lawsuit against the Iranian government for holding them or members of their family hostage in 1979 and 1980 (Roeder, et al., v. Iran, 11-730).  Congress has tried four times to revive such lawsuits, but they have been thrown out of court repeatedly on sovereign immunity grounds.

The Court accepted the suggestion of the U.S. Solicitor General and declined to review a case testing whether it violates federal patent law for a jury to override a Patent Office’s decision in awarding a patent that the invention was a novel one. The case was Saint-Gobain Ceramics & Plastics v. Siemens Medical Solutions USA (11-301), involving a dispute over a patent on a radiation detector used for medical imaging.   In a second significant patent case, the Court refused to clarify when a patent holder loses its rights following the sale of its protected item by a licensed firm.  That case (Tessera, Inc., v. International Trade Commission, 11-903) involved a dispute over a patent on an assembly that is designed to protect the tiny semiconductor chips that are in wide use in electronic devices such as cellphones or tablets.

In a summary ruling — that is, deciding without briefing or oral argument — the Court by an apparently unanimous vote gave lower federal courts a new warning not to second-guess the rulings of juries and state courts in state criminal cases.  The ruling came in the case of Coleman v. Johnson (11-1053), in which a Harrisburg, Pa., man had argued — successfully, in the Third Circuit Court — that there was not enough evidence to convict him of being a part of the murder of a man in an alley in 1995 after a dispute over the failure to pay off a debt.  Lorenzo Johnson contended that he was only a bystander when a companion shot and killed the individual claimed to have defaulted on the debt — Taraja Williams.   In an unsigned opinion, the Court said the Third Circuit was wrong in not accepting the verdict of the jury and the agreement of state courts in Pennsylvania that there was, indeed, enough evidence to convict Johnson for his role.

The Court also has disclosed that, last week, it had dismissed a high-profile case on asylum rights for foreign nationals facing deportation — Demiraj, et al., v. Holder (10-1545).  The case apparently has been settled after a long-running negotiation with federal officials.  The Justice Department obtained nine extensions of Supreme Court deadlines for answering the petition. The woman and her son faced deportation even though they claimed that they would face persecution in their home country, because of the anti-regime activities of her husband.   Lower courts ruled the wife and son were not eligible for asylum in the U.S., because their fears were not based on something happening to the family as a group (for which asylum would be available), but because of their ties to the husband.  Lower courts are split on that question.  The terms of the settlement were not made public.

(NOTE: A later post on this blog will analyze the Court’s ruling Tuesday in Radlax Gateway Hotel v. Amalgamated Bank, 11-166, declaring that a federal bankruptcy judge may not approve a debtor’s reorganization plan under Chapter 11 if the plan includes the sale of property that had been put up to secure l0ans, if the creditors who made the loans are not allowed to bid for the property at the sale.   The ruling was unanimous, although Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not take part in it.  The case grew out of a failed plan to build a parking facility and renovate the Radisson Hotel at the Los Angeles airport.)









Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Police power to use stun guns left unclear, SCOTUSblog (May. 29, 2012, 1:02 PM),