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Fifth Circuit: Texas Jail Guard’s Use of Taser on Compliant Detainee Unconstitutional

by David M. Reutter

On July 24, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded that “precedents conclusively establish that the use of a taser on a non-threatening and cooperative subject is an unconstitutionally excessive use of force.” The Court, therefore, reversed summary judgment for a Texas jail guard, but it affirmed dismissal of a deliberate indifference claim.

Andre Boyd was a pretrial detainee at McLennan County Jail in Waco when he was seen by medical staff for a hand injury that occurred during his arrest. Guard Jeremy Johnson was present when a nurse was with Boyd a few days after his arrest. Johnson requested Boyd give him his armband, which Boyd did without incident. It was related that Boyd would be charged for altering the armband, and a dispute arose between the two when Boyd was returned to his cell.

Johnson ordered Boyd to submit to handcuffing. The ensuing incident was caught on video. Boyd is seen turning around and putting his hands behind his back. “Officer Johnson removed handcuffs from his belt, opened the cell door, and then forcefully grabbed Boyd’s left hand—i.e., the hand with the fractured pinky finger that Johnson watched the nurse examine just moments earlier,” the Fifth Circuit recalled. “Boyd, understandably, pulled his hand away in pain.” He told Johnson not to grab his finger and again turned around to submit to handcuffing.

“Instead of handcuffing the compliant Boyd, Johnson fired his taser,” the Court continued. “He struck Boyd in the back of his left shoulder. Immediately afterwards, Johnson ‘drive stun’ tased Boyd in the back of his right thigh.” Boyd remained compliant, was handcuffed, and removed from the cell area.

After he filed suit pro se, the federal court for the Western District of Texas granted Defendants summary judgment after limited discovery on all claims. On Boyd’s claim that he was subjected to excessive force, the district court found no constitutional violation “because Boyd was ‘actively resisting’ Johnson’s attempt to handcuff him when he was tased and because ‘Johnson’s determination that he was threatened was not objectively unreasonable.’” The district court also rejected Boyd’s deliberate indifference claim for lack of any “evidence whatsoever that any Defendant had subjective knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm to Plaintiff but responded with deliberate indifference to that risk.” It further turned away Boyd’s claims that Sheriff Parnell McNamara was liable for unconstitutional policy and practice, finding Plaintiff failed to present “evidence of any official or unofficial policy” that deprived him of constitutional rights. Represented by attorney Michael Dallas Lieberman of Fairmark Partners, LLP, in Washington, D.C., Boyd appealed.

The Fifth Circuit, after examining the record in a light most favorable to Boyd, “conclude[d] that a rational jury could find that Boyd did not pose a threat and was cooperative at the time he was tased.” A rational jury could also find, the Court said, that “Boyd stood with his back to Johnson and his hands in the handcuffing position for a full four seconds before Johnson deployed his taser,” the Court added, so it “could therefore determine that Boyd is telling the truth when he says that where the video shows him turning his head, he was telling Johnson how to apply the handcuffs without hurting him. In which case, Boyd would have been facilitating rather than hindering Johnson’s efforts.”

Citing three precedents—Ramirez v. Martinez, 716 F.3d 369 (5th Cir. 2013); Hanks v. Rogers, 853 F.3d 738 (5th Cir. 2017); and Trammel v. Fruge, 868 F.3d 332 (5th Cir. 2017)—the Court also found Johnson was on notice that he could not constitutionally fire a taser at a non-threatening, compliant subject. Therefore, the judgment dismissing the excessive force was reversed and remanded for trial on that claim. Summary judgment was also reversed and discovery ordered reopened on Boyd’s policy and practice claims. The Court affirmed summary judgment only on Boyd’s deliberate indifference medical claim. See: Boyd v. McNamara, 74 F.4th 662 (5th Cir. 2023).

The case then returned to the district court, where Boyd picked up representation from attorney Billy Clark of The Clark Law Firm, PLLC, in Cedar Hill. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Boyd v. McNamara, USDC (W.D. Tex.), Case No. 6:19-cv-00634.  

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Related legal case

Boyd v. McNamara