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Eleventh Circuit: Tasing of Inert Detainee is Excessive Force

by David M. Reutter

On May 9, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals answered in the affirmative whether it is “excessive force to tase for a second time a man who, as a result of an initial shock, is lying motionless on the floor and has wet himself, and who presented only a minimal threat to begin with?”

The appellate ruling came in a civil rights action brought by the estate of Ricky Hinkle, who was held at Alabama’s Birmingham City Jail after being arrested while “visibly intoxicated.” Soon thereafter, he began suffering alcohol withdrawal symptoms and exhibited delusional behavior. He was moved three times before ending up in a cellblock with jail guards Habimana Dukuzumuremyi and Christopher Cotten.

Shortly after Hinkle arrived in the cellblock, Dukuzumuremyi realized he could not see Hinkle on the cell’s video monitor. Cotten went to investigate after Hinkle did not respond to a query over the loudspeaker. He found Hinkle standing in the corner of his cell wearing only his underpants and shoes. After Hinkle said he wanted to die, Cotten decided to move him to a padded cell.

While attempting to do so, Hinkle ran down the hallway, entered a bathroom and grabbed a shower curtain. Once the curtain was taken away, Cotten and Dukuzumuremyi tried three times to put Hinkle in the new cell. After the third attempt, Dukuzumuremyi fired his Taser, hitting Hinkle on the left side of his chest just above the heart. The five-second shock caused Hinkle to fall to the floor and urinate on himself.

Dukuzumuremyi ordered Hinkle to roll over to be handcuffed, but he was unresponsive. Eight seconds after that order, Dukuzumuremyi tasked Hinkle again, hitting him on the front left side of his neck. The second shock caused Hinkle to go into cardiac arrest, and he was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Hinkle’s estate filed suit. The Alabama federal district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds, though it dismissed a claim against Cotten for failing to intervene. The defendants appealed.

The Eleventh Circuit found the complaint did not plead facts sufficient to support claims of supervisory liability against Sheriff Mike Hale and Captain Ron Eddings. However, the appellate court upheld the finding that Dukuzumuremyi used excessive force.

There was no dispute that the first Taser shock was constitutionally permissible. The dispute surrounded the second shock. That Hinkle was motionless at the time indicated he could not roll over as ordered. The Court of Appeals wrote that within eight seconds, “any reasonable officer would have concluded that a detainee who lay inert on the floor, having soiled himself, was no longer putting up a fight.”

The Court therefore found “no legitimate basis for the second shock, particularly considering (1) that the first shock had immobilized Hinkle and (2) the minimal threat to order, safety, and security that Hinkle posed even from the outset.” Thus, Dukuzumuremyi was not entitled to qualified immunity. The district court’s order was reversed in part and affirmed in part, and following remand the parties entered into mediation. See: Piazza v. Hunter, 923 F.3d 947 (11th Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

Piazza v. Hunter