case law update

Pepper Spraying Violent Detainee in Patrol Car Not Excessive Force

Twice pepper-spraying a detainee in the back of a patrol car did not violate the detainee’s Fourth Amendment rights, where the detainee was violently kicking the car door and resisting arrest, the Eleventh Circuit recently held in a § 1983 matter.  

On September 7, 2014, Officer Elias Carrasquillo and other others responded to a call that Nancy Nigro had yelled at neighbors and thrown a painting, causing superficial damage to a car. Under the circumstances, Officer Carrasquillo believed it was appropriate to detain Ms. Nigro under Florida’s Baker Act. Officers thus handcuffed Ms. Nigro and placed her in the back of a patrol car.

Ms. Nigro began to scream, and then she kicked the rear passenger-side window, kicking out the window casing of the doorframe, while she was handcuffed in the back of the patrol car. In response, Officer Carrasquillo pepper sprayed Ms. Nigro for two seconds while she was still in the back of the patrol car. Ms. Nigro stopped struggling momentarily, but resumed kicking the window several minutes later. Officer Carrasquillo pepper sprayed Ms. Nigro for another two seconds and she finally calmed down.

Ms. Nigro subsequently filed a § 1983 action against Officer Carrasquillo, alleging he used excessive force when he pepper sprayed her while she was handcuffed in the back of the patrol car. The trial court granted summary judgment in Officer Carrasquillo’s favor on qualified immunity grounds, and Ms. Nigro appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

The appeals court reviewed the matter de novo and began its analysis stating that “reasonableness” of a particular use of force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” In making that determination, the court wrote it must “careful[ly] balanc[e] the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interest at stake.”

The appeals court then addressed a precedential decision it issued in 2002, in which it held that officers had violated an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights when they pepper sprayed the individual while she was sitting in the back of a patrol car. “Critically,” the court noted, the plaintiff was not resisting arrest or attempting to flee in the 2002 case.

The Eleventh Circuit distinguished its 2002 precedent as not controlling Ms. Nigro’s case, as it recognized in that 2002 case, “courts have consistently concluded that using pepper spray is reasonable, where the plaintiff was either resisting arrest or refusing police requests.” It therefore held that Officer Carrasquillo’s use of pepper spray was not excessive and did not violate Ms. Nigro’s Fourth Amendment rights, as “[t]he use of minimal force associated with a couple of two-second bursts of pepper spray was reasonable force to prevent Ms. Nigro from further damaging government property, injuring herself, or harming the officers.”

The Eleventh Circuit therefore affirmed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of Officer Carrasquillo. 

Read the full case: Nigro v. Carrasquillo


This case law update was written by James G. Heelan, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: Fourth Amendment, fourth amendment right, excessive force, james p. garay heelan


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