HARTFORD — A Connecticut police officer who used a stun gun on a 12-year-old deaf boy at his school acted reasonably and cannot be sued by the boy’s parents for excessive force because of government immunity, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York decided in favor of now-retired West Hartford officer Paul Gionfriddo, who appealed a lower court judge’s denial of his request to dismiss the claims against him in the parents’ lawsuit. The appeals court overturned the lower court and ordered it to issue a judgment for Gionfriddo.
“It was the entirely correct result,” Gionfriddo’s lawyer, Scott Karsten, said of the ruling. “The officer was confronted with a very difficult situation and handled it properly.”
Gionfriddo and another officer responded to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford in April 2013 when school officials reported the boy had assaulted a teacher during a dispute over a takeout food order. School officials say the boy hit the teacher with a stick and rocks outside the school.
Police said they ordered the boy to drop a large rock and warned him they would use a stun gun if he didn’t. Teachers at the school translated the officers’ commands and warnings in sign language to the boy, who police say ignored officers’ orders.
Gionfriddo shot the boy once with stun gun wires and administered electroshock for five seconds, but officers couldn’t get the boy handcuffed, police said. With the wires still stuck in the student, Gionfriddo deployed a second electroshock that allowed officers to get the handcuffs on, officials said.
The boy, known only as “A.M.” in court documents, claimed he was defending himself after a teacher assaulted him. He also denied receiving and understanding the teachers’ sign language interpretations of the police commands.
“Officer Gionfriddo … had a reasonable basis to believe that A.M. posed a threat to himself or the other staff members,” a three-judge panel of the appeals court wrote. “Officer Gionfriddo had a reasonable basis to believe that his instructions and warnings were being conveyed to A.M. and that A.M. was ignoring them.”
Andrew Rozynski and Eric Baum, New York-based lawyers for the boy’s parents, said in a statement that Friday’s ruling “could set a dangerous precedent that gives police officers the opportunity to use excessive force without accountability for their actions.”
Rozynski said they were considering whether to appeal the ruling and noted they still have pending claims in state court against Gionfriddo and the town of West Hartford.