Tasing is for Safety, Not Punishment: Even Non-Lethal Force Can be Deadly

South Boston police responded to the local Super 8 Motel in the wee hours of May 3, 2013. They came because they’d received phone calls from Linwood Lambert, Jr. asking somewhat unclearly for help. When they arrived, they found Lambert’s room in shambles, with blood stains about, and a white discharge around Lambert’s nose. Lambert said he’d killed two people and hidden the bodies in the ceiling tiles, but police found no bodies. Suspecting a psychiatric problem, they determined to take him to the emergency room.

A few hours later, Lambert was dead.

What happened in the hours between when well-intentioned officers responded to the South Boston Super 8 and when they discovered Lambert dead in the back seat of their patrol car is a short course on the harsh realities and staggering difficulties of modern police work. In Smalls v. Chief of Police Binner, U.S. District Judge Kaiser from the Western District of Virginia took up these questions of law enforcement, mental illness, drug abuse, police work, and the use of deadly force.

First, police took Lambert from the Super 8 Motel to the ER in a police cruiser. When they got to the emergency room, Lambert began acting violently and dangerously. He destroyed hospital property, including the emergency room doors, he fought off officers trying to restrain him, he refused commands to stop his bizzarre behavior. Officers tased Lambert repeatedly to induce him to stop, for their safety and that of the community. Officers’ use of tasers at this point in the encounter were lawful.

Second, the officers who originally determined to take Lambert to the hospital acted lawfully when, after Lambert’s disruption and damage, they changed their minds and determined to place him under arrest for criminal violations.

Third, and here we get to the meat of things, officers acted unlawfully in their next rounds of tasing Lambert. Once Lambert, at the entrance to the emergency room, had been tased, was on the ground, surrounded by police, and was attempting, however futilely, to obey officers’ commands to roll over, the officers were not permitted to continue tasing Lambert. Under those circumstances, “there was no immediate threat of violence or risk of flight” by Lambert, and the continued tasing was illegal.

Fourth, when police put Lambert in their patrol car and he refused, or was unable, to sit up appropriately in the back seat, police were not permitted to tase him to force his compliance with transportation needs. Under those “relatively settled” conditions, tasing Lambert was less about a “good faith intent to restore discipline” and more suggestive of “malice and intent to harm or punish.”

Your reporter lost count, but Lambert appears to have been tased about twenty times between arriving at the ER and leaving the ER parking lot in the back of a patrol car on his way to jail.

After the last round of tasing, police saw that Lambert had slumped over in the back seat as if he’d passed out from being drunk or high. Not until officers arrived at the jail did they discover him non-responsive. They called for medical assistance and performed CPR to no avail. The medical examiner determined Lambert died of “excited delirium due to cocaine use with subsequent physical restraint including use of [tasers].”

Police in the case had little or no training regarding what “excited delirium” is. As it happens, that description is not a medically recognized diagnosis though there was evidence in the case that it’s a phenomenon that has been described in many cocaine and cocaine/mental illness related crimes. The police who responded in Lambert’s case also had little or no training concerning evaluating the medical condition of people who have been tased after the tasing.

Judge Kaiser took up this case on a motion for summary judgment. That’s a pre-trial motion and in that review the court is required to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Of course, most of the testimony in the case came from the arresting officers, so at trial one might expect the account to be about the same.

Judge Kaiser dismissed excessive force claims related to the first round of tasings at the hospital, as well as the claims of false arrest, and refusing Lambert medical treatment.

He allowed to go to trial, though, the excessive force claims related to the tasings while Lambert was on the ground and non-threatening, and while he was in the patrol car and disobedient but non-violent. Also going to trial are claims related to unconstitutional and inadequate training of officers.

Law enforcement should take away a few important lessons, writ small and large, from this case:

  • A taser is a deadly weapon.
  • If officers aren’t trained in mental health and substance abuse symptoms, and what those conditions mean for when it’s appropriate to use a taser, get that training.
  • Deadly force can sometimes be used to protect the public safety, but it can’t be used to punish non-compliant suspects.
  • People like Linwood Lambert pose extraordinary challenges to our communities and to first responders and law enforcement especially.
  • Those challenges notwithstanding, the courts are going to examine closely each and every application of force to see if that use comports with Constitutional requirements.

Click here to download a copy of the opinion related to this case.

If you have questions, Sands Anderson’s Law Enforcement and Public Safety Defense Team would be glad to speak with you.