Police Tasering Pregnant Woman ‘Justified’
The 9th Circuit ruled yesterday that police can Taser pregnant women posing no risk so long as judges can concoct an implausible risk years later.
Three Seattle police officers were justified when they used a stun gun on a pregnant mother who refused to sign a traffic ticket, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a case that prompted an incredulous dissent.
Malaika Brooks was driving her son to Seattle’s African American Academy in 2004 when she was stopped for doing 32 mph in a school zone. She insisted it was the car in front of her that was speeding, and refused to sign the ticket because she thought she’d be admitting guilt. Rather than give her the ticket and let her go on her way, the officers decided to arrest her. One reached in, turned off her car and dropped the keys on the floor. Brooks stiffened her arms against the steering wheel and told the officers she was pregnant, but refused to get out, even after they threatened to stun her. The officers – Sgt. Steven Daman, Officer Juan Ornelas and Officer Donald Jones – then stunned her three times, in the thigh, shoulder and neck, and hauled her out of the car, laying her face-down in the street.
But in a 2-1 ruling Friday, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Judges Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain held that the officers were justified in making an arrest because Brooks was obstructing them and resisting arrest.
The use of force was also justified because of the threat Brooks posed, Hall wrote: “It seems clear that Brooks was not going to be able to harm anyone with her car at a moment’s notice. Nonetheless, some threat she might retrieve the keys and drive off erratically remained, particularly given her refusal to leave the car and her state of agitation.” They also noted that the force used wasn’t that serious because the Taser was in “touch” mode rather than “dart” mode, which hurts more. They reversed the lower court’s opinion and held that the officers were entitled to immunity from the lawsuit.
The officers’ lawyers, Ted Buck and Karen Cobb, said the officers made the right decision under the circumstances they faced. “Police officers have to have the ability to compel people to obey their lawful orders,” Buck said. That’s all the court recognized today. The 9th Circuit just applied the law instead of getting caught up in the otherwise unfortunate factual circumstances.”
The majority’s opinion outraged Judge Marsha Berzon, who called it “off the wall.” “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,” she wrote. She argued that under Washington law, the officers had no authority to take Brooks into custody: Failure to sign a traffic infraction is not an arrestable offense, and it’s not illegal to resist an unlawful arrest.
As regular readers will no doubt guess, I agree fully with Berzon. The police officers grossly abused their authority here and acted thuggishly.
Sadly, I’m not surprised at the ruling. Judges have been, for going on four decades now, loathe to second guess police officers and the principle of Terry v. Ohio, that officers have a right to briefly violate the Constitution if they are scared (I paraphrase) has been stretched beyond belief. Judges and other public officials, not unreasonably, want to give officers a wide berth because their jobs are indeed dangerous and the prospect having their instincts questioned ex post in the calm light of day might make them take excessive risks.
But this is a clear cut case. This wasn’t some 220-pound man hopped up on meth but rather a pregnant woman accused of driving 7 miles per hour over the speed limit. Yes, her refusal to sign a ticket after being told (and it being printed on the ticket) that signing is merely acknowledgment of receipt and not an admission of guilt, is annoying. But, clearly, this was a case of officers frustrated that a citizen dared question their authoritay, not an overreaction to reasonable peril.
BTW: where are all the anti-authoritarian libertarians now? It seems as if they only care about the constitution when it comes to taxes and guns. Someone else’s right not to be electrocuted for refusing to sign a traffic ticket? Not their problem.
Give people a break. The result was just announced yesterday and it’s just making its way from the AP wire to the papers and blogs. If they’re still ignoring it once they’ve heard about it, you can give them a hard time.