A Cabarrus County man who was left paralyzed from the waist down when he fell fifteen feet after two sheriff’s deputies hit him with a Taser gun may proceed with his lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. A U.S. District Court magistrate judge for the Middle District of North Carolina recommended that the officers’ motion to dismiss be denied.
The officers arrived at the home of Dale Cook to serve him with a warrant for his arrest for domestic violence. They found that Cook had climbed up into a tree stand in his yard. Cook refused to climb down as the officers requested, and the officers ultimately brought him down by firing their Taser gun at him. Cook then either collapsed or jumped, depending on which side is telling the story, and broke his back.
The police claimed that hitting Cook with 50,000 volts of electricity while he was sitting fifteen feet in the air in a small tree stand was necessary in order to prevent Cook from possibly harming himself.
Each side gave markedly different versions of the night’s events. The officers claim that Cook made suicidal statements and pulled out a knife while he was up in the tree stand and that after being hit with the Taser, Cook lifted the stand’s safety bar and jumped off the stand.
Cook and his wife claimed that he made no suicidal statements, did not have a knife, and that he fell after receiving the blast of electricity rather than jumped. Four neighbors who witnessed the incident all said that Cook fell rather than jumped.
The sheriff’s department argued that the court should ignore the testimony of the four witnesses. Citing 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent in Sigman v. Town of Chapel Hill, the officers claimed that the court should look only at the information that was available to the officers at the time, and that an analysis of whether their use of force was reasonable should be based on the circumstances they perceived.
Magistrate Judge L. Patrick Auld recommended that the court deny the officers’ motion for summary judgment. Sigman dealt with a situation in which officers faced a split-second decision about how to deal with a potentially dangerous suspect, he noted. In Cook’s circumstance, the deputies’ decision-making was much less urgent.
Auld held that Sigman addressed the relevance of events that preceded the officers’ use of force. But the question of whether Cook fell or jumped from the tree stand happened after the decision to use force, and so Sigman did not resolve that issue of whether the witnesses’ testimony could be heard.
Auld found that a jury could decide that the police officers were the proximate cause of Cook’s injuries. He then also considered whether the level of force used against Cook exceeded the officers’ interest in apprehending him, given that both sides agreed that Cook had not threatened to harm anyone besides himself. Auld found that a jury could decide that the use of force was unreasonable.
“A fact-finder could conclude that a reasonable officer would foresee that utilizing a Taser under such circumstances could cause the targeted individual to fall and thereby to suffer serious harm, indeed, more serious harm than cuts to a wrist with a Swiss Army knife,” Auld wrote.
Auld cited case law in other circuits holding that it would be odd to allow officers to use force that could cause serious harm or death, simply to prevent a suspect from harming himself.
The Cooks are represented by Lee Olive and Whitney Brooks of the Olive Law Firm in Charlotte, and by Carlos Mahoney of Glenn, Mills, Fisher and Mahoney in Durham. The sheriff’s department is represented by David Allen and J. Douglas Grimes of Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo in Charlotte, and by Kenneth R. Raynor of Templeton & Raynor in Charlotte.
The 38-page opinion is Cook et al. v. Riley et al., (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-03-0696). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.