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Justices reinstate civil rights action over stun-gun death

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ordered a lower court to take a new look at a case involving repeated police use of a Taser stun gun on a handcuffed Louisiana man who later died.

The justices sent the case of Baron Pikes back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. That court dismissed a civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of Pikes’ young son against a former police officer in the central Louisiana town of Winnfield.

The order followed a ruling last week in which the Supreme Court sent another case back to the 5th Circuit after appellate judges dismissed a lawsuit filed by a man who was shot on the porch of his family home by a Houston-area police officer. The high court said the 5th Circuit acted too hastily in dismissing the injured man’s claims.

In the Taser case, the appeals court also will look at whether it should have more fully taken account of the claims made on behalf of Pikes’ son.

A police officer used his Taser on Pikes at least eight times over 14 minutes, after the 21-year-old had been handcuffed following a brief chase. Pikes was wanted for possession of crack cocaine.

Pikes began showing signs of distress a short time after officers dragged him into the Winnfield police department building. He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

His death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest, following nine 50,000-volt applications of a stun gun. It is unclear whether Pikes was shocked eight or nine times. He had marijuana in his system at the time of his death and had sickle cell anemia. The cause of death is not at issue in the suit.

The question in the lawsuit is whether the police used excessive force against Pikes, especially because he was handcuffed.

Winnfield fired Officer Scott Nugent after the episode. Nugent was charged with manslaughter in Pikes’ death but was acquitted by a jury in 2010.

A federal trial judge said the civil suit against Nugent could go forward, but the appeals court dismissed the claims.

The appeals court said Pikes was arrested for a serious crime, tried to evade arrest and did not comply with the officers’ commands to cooperate. The court said the case must be dismissed because it wasn’t clear that Nugent’s actions violated Pikes’ constitutional rights. The law shields an official from being sued for money damages unless the official violated a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time the claimed misconduct occurs, the court said.

The case is Thomas v. Nugent, 13-862.