A Coronado, Calif., police officer used excessive force when he shot a Taser dart at a young driver who was stopped for a seat belt violation, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Carl Bryan, then 21, fell to the asphalt after being struck by the dart, breaking four teeth and suffering facial cuts. He later sued the Coronado Police Department and Officer Brian MacPherson.
The excessive-force ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals could have consequences for police use-of-force policies across the West, legal experts predicted. Two other lawsuits over Taser incidents are still pending before the appeals court, including a case in which a pregnant woman in Seattle was subjected to the device in a routine traffic stop.
Police must have reasonable grounds for using a Taser on a suspect, the appeals panel said, noting that Bryan was wearing only boxer shorts and tennis shoes and was clearly unarmed. Bryan was standing about 20 feet away with his back to MacPherson when he was hit.
"I think police departments will have to tailor their use-of-force policies to the Bryan decision from now on," said Steven E. Boehmer, the El Cajon, Calif., attorney who represented MacPherson.
The appeals panel, while deeming the Taser use excessive and unjustified, said the officer nonetheless deserved immunity from prosecution because the circumstances in which the weapon could be reasonably deployed weren't clearly defined at the time.
Because of the immunity grant, Coronado, in San Diego County, won't appeal the excessive-force ruling, Boehmer said, and would work with police to establish guidelines for use of the weapon.
Bryan, who now lives in Europe, where he assists his tennis-champion cousins Bob and Mike Bryan, still has state court actions in which he hopes to recover damages, said his attorney, Julia Yoo.
Bryan had been stopped at a seat belt enforcement roadblock at the Coronado Bridge after spending hours on the morning of July 24, 2005, driving between Camarillo and Los Angeles to fetch his keys that had been accidentally taken by a cousin's girlfriend. On the drive home from Camarillo to Coronado, Bryan had been cited for speeding and was agitated when he was stopped a second time by MacPherson, according to court records.