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Lawsuit Over Police Taser Use May Head to Supreme Court

Three Seattle police officers are trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal in a police brutality lawsuit brought over the use of a Taser stun gun three times in less than a minute on a pregnant woman who did not pose any safety threat.

The case stems from a complaint filed by Malaika Brooks, who was seven months pregnant and seated in her car with her 11 year old son when she was struck by the Taser weapon after she refused to sign a speeding ticket and exit her vehicle.

Brooks was driving her son to school in 2004 when she was pulled over for speeding by the officers. She incorrectly thought that signing the speeding ticket was an admission of guilt, and said she would accept the ticket but not sign it. After being told that she could be arrested for failing to sign the ticket, the officers ultimately decided to use their Taser weapon to force Brooks out of the car.

To avoid sending volts of electricity through her pregnant belly, the officers shocked her in the thighs and in the back of the neck three times until she was rendered unconscious in front of her 11-year-old son, then dragged from her vehicle and handcuffed. As a result of the incident, Brookes alleged that she was left with permanent physical scars from the incident, but the child was born healthy.

Although the officers were successful in getting the case dismissed following appeal to the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, because the law at the time of the incident was not clear, the intermediate appellate court indicated that the force used may have been excessive, and may give rise to liability under the current law. The officers fear that the decision may set a precedent that opens law enforcement officers to liability in the future for using stun guns on resistant suspects.

The officers have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with several police groups supporting the request for the highest court in the country to review of the decision, hoping to preserve their ability to freely use Tasers and other stun guns as a “useful pain technique.”

While Taser weapons have been credited for preventing deaths and serious injuries that may have resulted from other means of apprehending aggressive individuals, concerns have increased in recent years about the overuse and abuse of the weapons, as well as a potential risk of health concerns for individuals struck with the electrical charge delivered by the weapons.

In October 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a report that estimated 15% of Taser shootings examined were clearly inappropriate, routinely being used on subjects who were unarmed and posed no physical threat.  In addition, more than a third of the cases examined by the NYCLU involved multiple or prolonged shocks, and in 27% of the incidents police officers shot the Taser in the victim’s chest.

Amnesty International released a report in 2008, calling for police departments throughout the United States to stop using Taser guns or to strictly limit their use to life-threatening situations.  The human rights group linked 334 deaths to the use of Taser guns between 2001 and August 2009, noting that 90% of Taser deaths examined involved people who were unarmed and did not appear to present a serious threat to the officers.

According to a report by the New York Times, the Supreme Court is expected to decide this week whether to hear the appeal.

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