Arguing that a jolt from a taser is a “useful pain technique,” three Seattle police officers have made an appeal to the Supreme Court to preserve the use of tasers and to clear their names in a lawsuit brought against them by Malaika Brooks. In 2004, Brooks, who was then seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to Seattle’s African American Academy when she was pulled over for driving 32 mph in a 20 mph school zone. She accepted a ticket but refused to sign it as required by state law at the time.
As the New York Times notes, Brooks “thought, wrongly, that signing was an acknowledgment of guilt.” Because she refused to sign, the two officers summoned a sergeant to the scene. He told them to arrest Brooks, who would not get out of her car. Officer Juan M. Ornelas showed her a taser and asked her if she knew what it was; she said she did not and told them that she was pregnant. The New York Times‘s account continues:
The three men assessed the situation and conferred. “Well, don’t do it in her stomach,” one said. “Do it in her thigh.”
Officer Ornelas twisted Ms. Brooks’s arm behind her back. A colleague, Officer Donald M. Jones, applied the Taser to Ms. Brooks’s left thigh, causing her to cry out and honk the car’s horn. A half-minute later, Officer Jones applied the Taser again, now to Ms. Brooks’s left arm. He waited six seconds before pressing it into her neck.
Ms. Brooks fell over, and the officers dragged her into the street, laying her face down and cuffing her hands behind her back.
Afterwards, Brooks gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She had permanent scars after the incident and was convicted of a misdemeanor for refusing to sign the ticket but not of resisting arrest. She sued the three officers for causing her intense pain three times.
Last October, the officers prevailed in a split decision from a 10-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco:
The majority said the officers had used excessive force but nonetheless could not be sued because the law on the question was not clear in 2004, when the incident took place. While the ruling left the three officers in the clear, it did put them and their colleagues on notice that some future uses of Tasers would cross a constitutional line and amount to excessive force.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the officers are now seeking to preserve their right to use tasers as, again, a “useful pain technique.”
If hearing such doublespeak applied to a taser isn’t appalling enough, so is it to read the dissenting opinions. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski described Brooks as “defiant” and “deaf to reason” and said she had brought the police officers’ tasing and pulling her from her car upon herself; he said that the officers “deserve our praise, not the opprobrium of being declared constitutional violators.” Judge Barry G. Silverman said that tasing was “a humane way to force Brooks out of her car” instead of “fists, batons, chokeholds, tear gas and chemical spray” which could all pose risks to both “suspects and officers alike.”
Lost in all these arguments is the simple fact that Brooks was seven months pregnant and that she had been stopped for a traffic violation, as her lawyer Michael F. Williams says to the New York Times. What the three officers are seeking to defend is, says Williams, simply “inexcusable conduct.”
The Supreme Court is to decide next week about whether or not to hear the three officers’ appeal about protecting their “right to tase.”
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