Court Upholds $6.5M Verdict Against Ex-Independence Cop Who Tased A High School Student
After tasing Bryce Masters for about 20 seconds, Timothy Runnels dragged the unconscious teen several feet before dropping him face-down on the pavement.
Government officials enjoy broad protection against federal lawsuits, but a federal appeals court last week refused to extend it to an Independence police officer who was tagged with a $6.5 million jury verdict in a police brutality case.
In a rare instance of a court denying qualified immunity to a government official, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the policeman, Timothy Runnels, had violated the teen victim’s right to be free from “an excessive, prolonged use” of a Taser.
The victim, Bryce Masters, sued Runnels in 2016 for violating his civil rights. Two years earlier, Masters, then a 17-year-old high school senior, was driving his car when Runnels pulled him over for a traffic stop.
When Masters refused to get out of his car, Runnels tried to drag him out, then drew his Taser and shot him. One barb lodged in his chest and another in his abdomen. Masters was able to crawl out of his car before falling unconscious face-down on the pavement.
Runnels kept the trigger engaged for about 20 seconds, the equivalent of four cycles of the Taser, even though had Masters complied with all of his commands until he fell unconscious.
After handcuffing him, Runnels lifted the unconscious teen by his arms and dragged him several feet to a driveway before dropping him face-first onto the concrete, fracturing four teeth and causing abrasions on his face.
The Taser discharge, meanwhile, caused Masters to suffer a convulsion and go into cardiac arrest. First responders revived him, but he suffered hypoxia – or oxygen deficiency to the brain.
Following a five-day trial in December 2018, a jury awarded Masters $5 million in actual damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages, including $500,000 for prolonged use of the Taser and $1,000,000 for the pavement drop.
Post-trial, Runnels argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity – the legal doctrine that shields government officials from liability for conduct that does not violate “clearly established” law. The doctrine has effectively shielded police from all but the most egregious conduct – and oftentimes it has shielded them from such conduct as well.
The trial judge, however, denied Runnels’ motion, and the 8th Circuit last week upheld that finding.
“An officer may not continue to tase a person who is no longer resisting, threatening or fleeing,” Circuit Judge Jane L. Kelly wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel of the court. “That is so whether the tasing comes in the form of multiple, separate deployments or, as in this case, a single, continuous deployment that lasts for an extended period of time.”
Kirk Presley, Masters’ attorney, hailed the court’s ruling, saying it relied on “established precedent that excessive force is always unconstitutional.”
“In fact, the jury found that defendant Runnels’ continued Taser trigger pull was intentional and malicious,” Presley said in an email. “So the record clearly supported a denial of qualified immunity.”
Ending qualified immunity – a doctrine established by the Supreme Court nearly 40 years ago – has become a central goal of proponents of police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd a year ago by a Minneapolis police officer. They argue the doctrine has been a major obstacle to police accountability.
The Supreme Court has said that the doctrine is necessary to give officers “breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments.” Without it, according to the court, the possible threat of personal liability would make them overly timid and discourage people from entering public service.
In finding that Runnels was not entitled to qualified immunity, the 8th Circuit adopted a position that it has rarely taken in the past. Two years ago, for example, it upheld the denial of qualified immunity to an officer who slammed a nonthreatening, nonviolent woman to the ground, breaking her collarbone and knocking her unconscious. The court found that the law surrounding the officer’s use of force was not clearly established.
The Runnels case is unusual not just because it represents the rare instance of a policeman successfully sued for damages. Runnels was also indicted on charges of depriving Masters of his civil rights under color of law and obstruction of justice.
Runnels, who was fired from the Independence Police Department after his encounter with Masters, pleaded guilty in 2015 to a single deprivation of rights charge and was sentenced to four years in prison. Federal prison records show he was released on Dec. 27, 2019.