The legality of the use tasers by law enforcement officials may soon be under review by the Supreme Court. This week the Court heard arguments in the Washington case of Daman v. Brooks and the Court will now decide whether it is going to grant certiorari and subsequently fully hear the case.
If certiorari is granted, any Supreme Court decision on this subject will greatly impact the use of the weapon, which has become a modern staple of law enforcement officers.
The case stems from a 2004 incident that occurred when Malakia Brooks, a Seattle woman who was seven months pregnant, was ticketed for speeding. While acknowledging that she would accept the ticket, Brooks told the officer that she would not sign it — as was required by state law — because she (wrongly) assumed that signing it would indicate an admission of guilt. However, refusing to sign the ticket also constituted a crime, and a police sergeant instructed the ticketing officers to arrest Brooks. When she refused to get out of her vehicle the sergeant instructed the officers to “taze” her, just not in the stomach. Brooks was tazed three times.
Brooks gave birth to a healthy child two months later and subsequently sued the three officers on the scene for causing her extreme physical pain and leaving permanent scars. The officers prevailed in a case last October on a split decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the officers’ use of force was excessive, yet they could not be held liable as the law relating to this question was not clear in 2004.
Despite partially absolving the three officers, the Ninth Circuit also pointed out that future uses of tasers might amount to excessive force, thereby violating constitutional protections. Despite winning the case in circuit court, the officers appealed to the Supreme Court to clear their names and allow for the use of tasers to continue in regular law enforcement work.
Over the last decade, the taser has become the weapon of choice of many law enforcement officers, who feel that the high voltage weapon quickly and effectively allows them to neutralize a suspect before a situation escalates into a potentially deadly encounter. However, the use of tasers has consistently been called into question in a series of lower court cases and many wonder if tasers are too often utilized before it has become necessary or in a situation that does not adequately call for it.
Tasers often inject more than 50,000 volts of electricity into a subject, causing a disruption of the central nervous system. Tasers have recently been found to pose a risk to the heart, and are now frequently reported as causing death.
The Brooks case may potentially place the legal merits of taser use before the Supreme Court. As such it is possible that such future uses of tasers by law enforcement hang in the balance. If the Court does grant cert and later holds that use of the weapon is constitutes excessive force, American law enforcement agencies may have to halt using the weapon, partially or fully, in order to shield themselves from civil and criminal prosecution, as well as uphold the legality of an arrest that is made.
However, if the Court rules the opposite, it is possible that the status quo regarding tasers may remain in place, but law enforcement agencies may have even more than their already substantial leeway in the use of the weapon on criminal suspects.
If certarori is granted in Daman v. Brooks, the methods of American law enforcement will likely change substantially. Accordingly, agencies across the country will undoubtedly be following the trajectory of the case closely. Yet regardless of the Court’s ruling in regards to the case, instances such as this makes one wonder what role the use of this potentially deadly weapon should continue to play in American society.