A federal appeals court in St. Paul heard arguments Tuesday that raise questions about the appropriate use of Tasers on jail inmates.
The case of Salaad Mahamed stands out because of where he was Tased. Mahamed was struck in his genitals after causing a disturbance at the Sherburne County jail.
Saalad alleges the officer used excessive force. But the attorney for the jail officer says his client was trying to defuse the potential for violence.
By all accounts, Salaad Farah Mahamed was not a model inmate at the Sherburne County jail, where he was detained on an alleged immigration violation. The Somali refugee, who has a fairly lengthy rap sheet, had a series of contentious encounters with jail staff before he was Tased in October of 2007.
The incident in question started when Mahamed became angry in a jail common area after a guard refused to change the TV channel. The guard ordered Mahamed to go back to his cell, where Mahamed began to kick the door.
A correctional officer, Sgt. Steve Pedersen, soon arrived and ordered Mahamed to lie on the floor so he could handcuff him. Mahamed laid on his back, but he kept shouting in protest.
That's when Pedersen used his stun gun. One probe hit Mahamed in the hand. The other struck him in one of his testicles. Mahamed passed out and woke up in a wheelchair.
Mahamed's attorney, Stephen Smith, says the case moves people on a gut level. And he wants the chance to present the case before a jury.
"The fact that he hit Mr. Mahamed in his genitals certainly brings to the picture a certain cringe factor," said Smith. "Any time I mention this fact to individuals, I get the same response, which is to squint your eyes, and you know the image that's running through the individual's mind."
But Smith says he would have just as strong of a case if Sgt. Pedersen had struck Mahamed in, say, the chest or arm. Smith argues that no matter where the probe from the stun gun landed, the officer shouldn't have used the Taser in the first place.
Smith says Mahamed wasn't being aggressive. He was just being mouthy.
"Would things have been better had he simply not said anything? Absolutely," said Smith. "But given the circumstances that were created, where you have an individual in his cell, by himself, who is lying on the floor because the officer has directed him to (do so), the question arises: Is it still necessary to then Tase this person, even if he is upset?"
Before he was released, Mahamed filed a lawsuit without the help of a lawyer, alleging that various jail officers and the county sheriff violated his constitutional rights. A district judge dismissed all the claims -- except the one accusing Pedersen of excessive force.
Pedersen challenged that decision and is asking the appeals court to dismiss the case.
His attorney, Bill Everett, says his client had the authority to use his Taser to handle a potentially violent inmate.
"What Sgt. Pedersen was dealing with was an immate who was basically out of control, who was screaming, who was yelling, who was kicking the door in his cell, and the officer had no reason whatsoever to think that he would be treated any differently," said Everett.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel asked pointed questions of both sides, and is expected to make a decision in the coming months.
Pedersen, who has worked as a corrections officer for seven years with the county, has maintained that he never meant to strike Mahamed in the genitals. He has said in court documents that he wanted Mahamed to lie on his stomach so he could handcuff him, but Mahamed instead lay on his back.
Greg Wiley is an attorney for Sherburne County. He says Pedersen never had any reason to act maliciously against Mahamed, and that the officer actually aimed his Taser much higher than where the dart eventually landed.
"It's very clearly in the record that he was trying to fire at the chest," said Wiley. "Because the inmate was moving at the time, and because the inmate was at an angle, the bottom probe of the Taser hit him in a very unfortunate place. It was not at all intended to hit him there."
Wiley says jail officials have reviewed the incident and have not disciplined the officer.
Sherburne County is one of five Minnesota counties that are under contract with the federal government to provide bed space for immigration detainees. Wiley says the county strives to treat those detainees fairly.
As for Salaad Mahamed, his attorney says, he is out of jail now and lives in Minneapolis. In court documents, Mahamed, 46, says being Tased in the genitals has led to incontinence and impotence.
He says he has seen a urologist, a chiropractor, pain-management specialist, and a therapist.
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