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Seventh Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment for Guard in Illinois Jail Taser Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for a guard who Tasered a federal pre-sentencing detainee at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County, Illinois. The prisoner alleged the guard’s use of the Taser amounted to an unconstitutional exercise of excessive force.

Darryl Lewis was placed in segregation at the Jerome Combs Detention Center after getting into a fight with another prisoner. Lewis was being housed at the jail awaiting sentencing for his recent federal conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Lewis went on a hunger strike while in segregation. Responding to an apparent suicide attempt wherein Lewis threatened to take a whole bottle of ibuprofen, Lewis was Tasered by Michael Shreffler, a guard at the jail.

Lewis sued Shreffler, arguing that his use of the Taser constituted excessive force. Lewis alleged that Shreffler Tasered him after Shreffler gave him one warning to get up from his bed, but was slow in doing so because he was weak from not eating. Shreffler painted a different picture, asserting that Lewis was Tasered only after he failed to comply with three orders for him to get up from his bed.

The magistrate judge in the case granted summary judgment for Shreffler, finding that Shreffler’s use of the Taser amounted to de minimis force, and that Shreffler’s conduct did not otherwise violate the Eighth Amendment. Lewis appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

The court began its analysis by noting that Lewis had arguably brought his claims under the wrong theory. As a detainee still awaiting sentencing, Lewis was still a pre-trial detainee, the court held. Pre-trial detainees cannot be “punished” and are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides better protections than the Eighth Amendment. But because Lewis failed to argue the Fourteenth Amendment applied, the court assessed Lewis’ claims under Eighth Amendment standards.

Even using the laxer Eighth Amendment standard, though, the court concluded that the alleged force against Lewis was excessive. “[B]ased on Lewis’s facts, we cannot say that Shreffler acted in good faith,” the court wrote. “[N]o reasonable officer would think that he would be justified in shooting Lewis with a taser gun,” assuming the truth of Lewis’ allegations. In so holding, the court was quick to reject the lower court’s conclusion that the use of a Taser amounts to de minimis force. “As the Supreme Court has said, pain, not injury, is the barometer by which we measure claims of excessive force,” the court wrote.
The judgment of the district court was accordingly reversed. See: Lewis v. Downey, 581 F.3d 467 (7th Cir. 2009), cert denied.

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Related legal case

Lewis v. Downey