In Wheeler v. City of Philadelphia, the federal trial court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dealt with what law enforcement officers would consider a common occurrence. Police responded to a call of a man who was having a psychotic breakdown near his home. William Wheeler, who was hallucinating, high on cocaine and armed, was screaming at imaginary assailants in the street. When the officers arrived, Wheeler was armed with a steak knife, a screwdriver, and a pair of scissors. The officers observed that Wheeler’s wife had blood on her from an apparent wound inflicted by William Wheeler. The officers attempted to calm Wheeler down. Instead of calming down, Wheeler charged at the officers with his screwdriver in hand. The officer’s pepper-sprayed Wheeler. One officer kicked his legs out from under him and the second officer struck him in the arm. The officers handcuffed Wheeler and had him in a prone position while awaiting emergency medical services. Wheeler went into cardiac arrest and died. The autopsy indicated that the death was the result of cardiac dysrhythmia, drug intoxication and restraint. Wheeler’s wife filed a lawsuit against the officers.
In considering the validity of the claim, the court applied the three-factor test from Graham v. Connor. The three factors are: The seriousness of the offense; whether the subject posed a physical threat to the officers or some other person present; and finally, whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. The court, following a previous decision by the United States Court of Appeal for the 3rd Circuit considered five additional factors in the reasonableness analysis:: the possibility the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous [i.e. greater threat]; the duration of the action [i.e. greater threat]; whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest [more force where arrest context – i.e. severity of offense]; the possibility that the suspect may be armed [i.e. greater threat]; and the number of persons with whom the police officers must contend at one time [i.e. greater threat to officer]. It should be noted that the additional factors used under 3rd Circuit holdings, actually fall within the major considerations announced in Graham.
In applying these factors to the facts of the Wheeler case, the court noted that Officers had been responded to a call of a man with a weapon and had observed Mrs. Wheeler with blood on her. Thus, at the time of the force, officers would consider this to be a serious offense. The fact that Mr. Wheeler was armed with a weapon established that he posed a physical threat to the officers. When the officers attempted to speak to him and calm him down, he resisted and charged the officers with a screwdriver, thus establishing active resistance to the officers’ attempt to arrest him. Additionally, the court noted that the officers did not reach for their firearms or “beat” Wheeler with batons, but had attempted the use of pepper-spray coupled with control tactics. The court concluded that the use of force used by the officers in this case was reasonable and dismissed the lawsuit.