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Tasing a Pregnant Woman in Front of Her Kid? The Outrageous -- And Dangerous -- Abuse of Tasers by Police

Police often misuse tasers -- with terrible results.
 
 
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Malaika Brooks and her baby.

 
 
 
 

In 2004, Malaika Brooks, seven months pregnant and accompanied by her 11-year-old son, was pulled over by two Seattle cops for driving 32 mph in a 20 mph zone. She was willing to accept a speeding ticket, but incorrectly thought signing it was an admission of guilt. She refused.

In response, one of the officers held up his Taser and asked if she knew what it was. She said she didn't, but added: “I have to go to the bathroom... I am pregnant. I’m less than 60 days from having my baby.”

According to Adam Liptak, reporting for the New York Times , this is what followed when a patrol supervisor joined the cops and decided to place Brooks under arrest, all in front of her young son:

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.

In the months that followed, Ms. Brooks gave birth to a healthy baby girl; was convicted of refusing to sign the ticket, a misdemeanor, but not of resisting arrest; and sued the officers who three times caused her intense pain and left her with permanent scars. 

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals let the officers off the hook for the incident, finding that while the force they used was excessive, they couldn't be held accountable “because the law on the question was not clear in 2004.” And then a strange thing happened: the cops, after winning, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which will decide shortly whether to hear the case.

Why appeal a case the cops had basically won? According to the Times, it was because the decision “put them and their colleagues on notice that some future uses of Tasers would cross a constitutional line and amount to excessive force.” Tasers have become such an integral tool in forcing citizens to comply that police agencies consider constraints on their use to be a bridge too far – a fight worth taking to the highest court in the land.

The city of Seattle filed a brief with the court asking that it not hear the case. City attorneys criticized what they called the cops' “sky is falling” take on the decision, adding that “three applications of a Taser in drive-stun mode in less than a minute on a pregnant woman who does not pose a safety threat” is the kind of excessive force that is likely to lead to liability for the city.

The most telling part of the story may be the unexamined assumption that police, faced with a very pregnant, nonviolent, non-threatening woman, had to resort to some sort of force to deal with the situation. In an ostensibly neutral news story, Adam Liptak wrote, “The situation plainly called for bold action.” One judge, dissenting from the ruling, said that Brooks had invited the assault by being “defiant” and “deaf to reason.” He added that the cops “deserve our praise, not the opprobrium of being declared constitutional violators. The City of Seattle should award them commendations for grace under fire.”

 
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