Will Ruling On Tasers Change Police Procedure?

Using Taser guns on civilians can be unconstitutional, a new court decision has found

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In 2007, a University of Florida undergraduate created a rallying cry when he pleaded with a police officer, “Don’t tase me, bro.” Now, a powerful federal appeals court in California has given support to the anti-Taser movement. The court ruled last week, in a case involving a pregnant woman pulled over for speeding, that using Taser stun guns on civilians can in some circumstances be unconstitutional. The ruling, although not a complete win for tasered civilians, should prompt police across the country to rethink when and how they use Tasers — and to use them less.

Malaika Brooks, who was seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school when she was pulled over for doing 32 mph in a 20 mph zone. The police tried to force Brooks to sign the speeding ticket, but she refused, believing it would constitute an admission of guilt. Police told her to get out of her car because she was going to jail, and when she refused, they began to tase her.

Even though Brooks told the officer, “I’m less than 60 days from having my baby,” he still applied the Taser to her thigh, arm, and neck — while she cried. After the neck tasing, Brooks fell over in her car, the police dragged her out, lay her face down on the street, and handcuffed her. Brooks gave birth to a healthy girl, but she has several permanent scars from the tasing.

(MORE: Are Tasers Being Overused?)

Brooks sued the police for using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. By a 6-4 vote, the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in Brooks’ case — and another in which a woman was tased by police in Hawaii — the police may have violated the Constitution. The court explained just how forceful tasers are, noting that they can deliver 1200 volts of electricity, which when it strikes a person “instantly overrides the victim’s central nervous system, paralyzing the muscles throughout the body, rendering the target limp and helpless.” The three shocks applied to Brooks, the court observed, were “extremely painful.”

Whether a police action constitutes excessive force is fact-specific question. In this case, the court said that speeding at a rate of 32 mph and refusing to sign a citation are not serious offenses. And while she was uncooperative, Brooks was not posing an immediate threat to the police, nor was she trying to flee. Taking all of this into account — and the fact that before the tasing began Brooks told the officers she was pregnant — the court said that a judge or jury could conclude that Brooks’ constitutional rights were violated. (In a second case it considered at the same time, the court said police in Hawaii may have used excessive force when it responded to a domestic disturbance and tasered a woman who was fighting with her drunk husband.)

Although the court found that the tasering may have constituted excessive force, it ruled for the police on a key point: it said that that the law was sufficiently murky that the officers might not have known that their actions violated the Fourth Amendment. Because of this, the court gave the police “qualified immunity” to Brooks’ federal claims — meaning she could not win any money damages. The bottom line, though, is this: the Ninth Circuit — which establishes federal law for nine Western states, including California — made clear going forward that Taser use in circumstances where they are not necessary can be unconstitutional — and could lead to large damage awards in future cases.

Tasers were intended to provide police with a safer, non-lethal alternative to firearms that can be used in subduing hostile or fleeing suspects. Often, their defenders say, they can save lives — by making it less likely that police will fire their guns. That may be true — but it is also the case that police all too often use Tasers in circumstances where painful force is not needed. That was the case with Malaika Brooks’ arrest. It is hard to believe that an unarmed seven-months pregnant woman, driving her son to school at 32 mph, could not be subdued by two police officers without the use of painful electric shocks that leave permanent scars.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling sends an important message to police: that the Constitution requires that Taser use be reasonable. If the suspect is not putting police or civilians at risk, and there are no other extenuating circumstances — don’t tase them, bro.