3/29/2010Federal Court Approves Traffic Stop Tasering Of Pregnant Woman
Ninth Circuit Appeals Court rules minor traffic stop justifies use of taser on pregnant woman.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Friday that it was acceptable for police to taser a pregnant mother over a minor traffic ticket. On November 23, 2004, Seattle, Washington Police Officer Juan Ornelas had been running a speed trap when Malaika Brooks passed by while driving her eleven-year-old son to school. Ornelas pulled over Brooks and accused her of speeding at 32 MPH. Brooks believed that the officer had mistakenly clocked the car ahead of hers, so she refused to sign the ticket thinking it would be an admission of guilt.
"I'm not signing, I'm not signing," Brooks said.
Eight years previously, Brooks had been stopped for another offense and she refused to sign the ticket. The officer on the scene allowed her to go without incident. This time, however, a second officer on the scene, Donald M. Jones, became incensed. He brandished a taser saying it would hurt her "extremely bad" if she did not get out of the car so that they could take her to jail. Brooks said that she was seven months pregnant, but Jones did not care. Ornelas put her in an armlock while Jones blasted the pregnant woman three times with the taser in her thigh, shoulder and neck. The officers then dragged her out of the car.
A jury subsequently refused to convict Brooks of resisting arrest. Brooks sued the officers over their use of excessive force. The appellate court, however, believed the jury to be in error.
"Based on Brooks's undisputed uncooperative behavior, a reasonably prudent person would have believed Brooks was violating section 9A.76.020 by obstructing the Officers' attempts to obtain her signature and complete the traffic stop," Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall wrote for the majority.
The court went on to argue that the use of force on a non-threatening and non-violent motorist was appropriate and reasonable. The appellate court ruled that the pregnant woman could pose a threat to three armed male police officers.
"Although obstructing an officer is a more serious offense than the traffic violations, it is nonetheless not a serious crime," Hall wrote. "It would also be incorrect to say Brooks posed no threat to officers. While she might have been less of a threat because her force so far had been directed solely at immobilizing herself, a suspect who repeatedly refuses to comply with instructions or leave her car escalates the risk involved for officers unable to predict what type of noncompliance might come next... Brooks may not have posed a great threat, she did pose some threat by virtue of her continued non-compliance."
The court then gave the officers involved full immunity for their actions, ending the lawsuit filed by brooks. Judge Marsha S. Berzon filed a blistering dissent pointing out that the legislature in 2006 removed the requirement for motorists to sign a ticket as evidence of the lack of proportion of the police response in this case.
"Refusing to sign a speeding ticket was at the time a nonarrestable misdemeanor; now, in Washington, it is not even that," Berzon wrote. "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.... Instead, a traffic offense -- assuming it occurred -- turned into an encounter that inflicted physical and, in all likelihood, emotional pain on a citizen who was not in any way dangerous to anyone."
Berzon went on to blast the court's theory that Brooks was guilty of obstructing a police officer.
"The majority's attempt to elevate the misdemeanor of refusing to sign the notice to the gross misdemeanor of obstructing an officer is simply beyond the pale," Berzon wrote. "Nor does the majority point to any authority supporting its off-the-wall theory... In short, there was just no cause to arrest Brooks for obstructing an officer. None. That is probably why the officers have never suggested that there was."
A copy of the decision is available in a 220k PDF file at the source link below.