WASHINGTON — Handcuffed but not obeying police commands, the 21-year-old suspect absorbed the first shot from a 50,000-volt stun gun as he lay on the ground.
Over the next 14 minutes, a police officer used his Taser on Baron Pikes at least seven more times when Pikes did not follow orders.
Pikes began showing signs of distress a short time after officers dragged him into the police department building in the central Louisiana town of Winnfield. A little over an hour later, on a January day in 2008, he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The Supreme Court is being asked to review Pikes’ case as part of a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of his young son against a former Winnfield police officer. If the justices agree to hear the case, it would be the court’s first look at police use of stun guns after turning away appeals from both recipients of the high-voltage shocks and from police officers.
A decision on taking up the issue could come as soon as Monday.
Since 2001, stun guns have been listed as a cause or contributing factor in more than 60 deaths in the United States, according to the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International. More than 540 people have died after police use of stun guns in that time, the group said.
“Police departments using these weapons should limit their deployment only to situations which are life threatening or where there is the threat of serious injury,” said Rachel Ward, managing director of research for Amnesty International USA. “What we have now is such a piecemeal approach as to how these weapons are being deployed, when really what is needed is very strict national guidelines on their use.”
Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, says that its stun guns are a safe, nonlethal alternative to firearms and that they have prevented 124,000 deaths or serious injuries. The company says injuries to officers and suspects decrease significantly when officers carry stun guns. Tasers are used by more than 17,000 law enforcement and military agencies in 107 countries.
“It’s disingenuous to limit the use of a tool that’s actually saving lives and has proven safer than actually tackling someone to the ground,” Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said.
A Justice Department study published in 2011 concluded that officers using stun guns should avoid shooting suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death. But the study also found that using stun guns to subdue unruly or uncooperative suspects is appropriate.
In 2012, an American Heart Association report linked stun gun use to heart attacks and deaths.
Lawyers pressing the suit in Pikes’ case also point to a recent Justice Department report about abuses of power by police officers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because they say Pikes’ case is similar to what investigators found in New Mexico. The report said Albuquerque police used Tasers unreasonably, including in situations that placed people at risk of death or serious harm. It also said police too quickly resorted to Taser use when other less extreme options were available.
The devices work in two different ways.
They can fire two barbed darts attached to wires that carry a high-voltage charge. In this mode, the stun gun has a range of 35 feet and can be used to subdue violent suspects at less risk to police.
The stun gun also can be used in “drive stun” mode in which the device is pressed directly against part of a suspect’s body and is intended to deliver enough localized pain to get someone to obey police orders.
In Pikes’ case, all but the first shot were in “drive stun” mode. His death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest, following nine 50,000-volt applications of a stun gun. It is unclear whether Pikes was shocked eight or nine times. He had marijuana in his system at the time of his death and had sickle cell anemia. The cause of death is not at issue in the suit.
Rather, the question is whether the police used excessive force against Pikes, especially because he was handcuffed. Pikes, 6-feet tall and weighing nearly 250 pounds, initially ran from police, but was caught a few minutes later. He was wanted for possession of crack cocaine.
Winnfield fired Officer Scott Nugent after the episode. Nugent was charged with manslaughter in Pikes’ death but was acquitted by a jury in 2010.
A federal trial judge said the civil suit against Nugent could go forward, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans dismissed the claims against him.
The appeals court said Pikes was arrested for a serious crime, tried to evade arrest and did not comply with the officers’ commands to cooperate. The court said the case must be dismissed because it wasn’t clear that Nugent’s actions violated Pikes’ constitutional rights. The law shields an official from being sued for money damages unless the official violated a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time the claimed misconduct occurs, the court said.
The case is Thomas v. Nugent, 13-862.