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Tasing to Force Compliance

Published by marco on

At the end of last year, a bit of very good news emerged from the otherwise increasingly draconian U.S. As detailed in the article Did a Court Just Deal a Fatal Blow to Tasers for Police? by Raj Jayadev (AlterNet), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made what appeared to be a landmark decision that, in cases where officers used tasers, “[t]he objective facts must indicate that the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public.”

Unfortunately, this sounds much better than it is, because of the phrase “poses an immediate threat”. That phrase leaves the applicability—and, thus, the legality—of an individual use of a taser up to the interpretation of the court. The hope was that a few strong precedents would establish a humane interpretation of this law. A few months later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—the same court—established a precedent, as detailed in the article, Ruling OK’s Tasering Pregnant Woman Three Times by Liliana Segura (AlterNet). The precedent, however, is anything but humane and seems downright un-American.[1]

The case in question is summarized below:

“Two days before Thanksgiving, in 2004, Malaika Brooks was rushing to drop off her son at school at the African American Academy in Seattle, when she was pulled over speeding in a school zone. Her son got out of the car and headed for school; meanwhile, Brooks, seven months pregnant and stressed out, told the officer she was not speeding and refused to sign her name to the ticket.”

For refusing to sign a speeding ticket, they threatened to arrest her. Can you get arrested for that now in America? Well, no[2], not really, but the police is only too happy to let people think that they can. It helps keep the sheep in line. Since she then didn’t comply, they were allowed to use any means necessary to get her to comply—essentially torturing her until she fell out of her car. WTF? For a speeding ticket? In the U.S. of freaking A? Sure, she was probably not polite. In fact, she was probably downright hostile. She is a black woman and the mouthiness of blacks has been known to infuriate many a police officer.[3]

Sure, she should have signed the ticket, but the cops are allowed to tase her until she complies? They’re allowed to arrest her for failing to properly fill out paperwork? What the F@#k is going on over there, anyway? She deserved to be repeatedly tased, then hauled out of her car, pushed to the pavement and arrested like a major felon?

Ms. Brooks was seven months pregnant at the time of her arrest, which some commentators think is the crux of the case. It is not. Her pregnancy makes the judgment of the police officers all the more suspect, but their actions were egregious not because they attacked a pregnant woman, but because they attacked an American citizen for a traffic violation. According to their own testimony, she was in her car, with both hands on the wheel: They didn’t even bother to make up a cock-and-bull story about “reaching under the seat”. She was also not a flight risk because they’d already confiscated her keys. What were the poor officers to do? Give her the keys back with their precious paperwork unsigned, letting her “ drive off erratically”? This was their expressed concern when they decided that the best course of action was to tase her out of her car and haul her downtown for driving 32 in a 20.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that this was a reasonable use of force. Of the three judges, one—Marsha Berzon—dissented, and quite strongly:

“I fail utterly to comprehend how my colleagues are able to conclude that it was objectively reasonable to use any force against Brooks, let alone three activations of a Taser, in response to such a trivial offense.”

A lawyer for the officers in this case said, after the ruling, that “[p]olice officers have to have the ability to compel people to obey their lawful orders”. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seems to agree: No matter how minor the infraction, the limit to the force police officers can apply to compel compliance is quite high. I personally was surprised that they are even allowed to try to force her out of the car by twisting her arm up behind her back—a “pain compliance hold”. For a traffic ticket? If tasing isn’t the limit, what is? Could they have used their nightsticks on her? What about shooting some sense into her with a bullet to the arm or leg? Nothing deadly, but just let her know they mean business and that non-compliance with police orders carries serious consequences in the U.S. of A.

[1] During the trial, “Officer Ornelas admitted that Seattle Police Department rules did not actually authorize him to arrest her for refusing to sign the ticket.” Because it apparently became common practice to do so, “In 2006, the Seattle legislature amended the law books to forbid police officers from arresting motorists for failing to sign their tickets.” How was Ornelas to know that wasting taxpayer money on arresting speeders was no longer legal?
[2] I’m not an idiot. I know that it’s pretty much “standard American” to keep the jackboot on the neck of the unwashed masses and almost always has been. I’m instead appealing to the mythic idea of “American-ness” where we are the land of the free and the home of the brave. I’m saying that being beaten and tased for a traffic violation isn’t something we should accept as part of the American experience.
[3] This is meant as scathing sarcasm, for those without a suitable sarcasm detector.