St. Martin Parish Police Tasing Leads to Wrongful Death Suit

On July 4, 2008, Othello Pierre attended a party at his uncle’s house in St. Martin Parish. Pierre’s uncle called 911 when Pierre got into a violent argument with a cousin. Two deputies with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Department responded. A third deputy and distant relative of Pierre was also at the party; she informed the two deputies who responded to the 911 call that she suspected there may be warrant out for Pierre’s arrest. The deputies ran Pierre’s name and confirmed that he had an outstanding felony arrest warrant for burglary. When one of the deputies attempted to place Pierre under arrest, he broke away and fled the scene. The two responding deputies pursued Pierre on foot and soon found him hiding behind an old camper shell. Though ordered not to move, Pierre again attempted to run away, at which point one of the deputies fired his taser. The taser barbs hit Pierre in the arm and the head, shocking him with a single five-second cycle. An ambulance took Pierre to the Lafayette General Medical Center where he died approximately three hours later. The autopsy revealed that Pierre’s death was the result of “multidrug intoxication” from substances such as methamphetamine, THC, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.

Narra Batiste and other members of Pierre’s family filed a civil action against the St. Martin Parish Sheriff and the deputies for the wrongful death of Pierre, alleging, among other things, that the deputies’ use of the taser was an unconstitutional use of deadly or excessive force. The district court heard motions for summary judgment on several issues, including the deputies’ motion to dismiss the claim of excessive force. The court denied the deputies’ motion, and appeal was taken in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The Plaintiffs relied on two paths to argue that Pierre’s tasering amounted to an unconstitutional use of deadly force. First, the Plaintiffs cited a Supreme Court case that held it was unlawful to use deadly force against a fleeing felon who does not pose a sufficient threat of harm to a police officer. Because that case concerned the use of a gun and not a taser, however, the court rejected its applicability. The court noted that no Fifth Circuit cases equated the use of a taser to the discharging of a firearm, and it declined to be the first. Second, the Plaintiffs argued that the deputy’s use of the taser while running violated the Sheriff Department’s policy and was contrary to the taser manufacturer’s guidelines for safe use. Yet, in the court’s view, the Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the use of the taser in the manner they described created an unreasonable risk of death. The court pointed to a dispute over whether Pierre was actually running when the taser was deployed, and concluded that “Plaintiffs’ assertions that the use of a taser on a fleeing suspect amounted to deadly force [were] unfounded.”

Next, the court turned to the question of whether the tasing was unconstitutionally excessive force, which we will take up in a future blog post.