John Whitehead's Commentary
Whatever Happened to Justice? Supreme Court OKs Police Tasering Pregnant Women
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”—Martin Luther King Jr.
Once again, the United States Supreme Court has proven Clarence Darrow, a civil liberties attorney and long-time advocate for the Constitution, correct in his assertion that “there is no such thing as justice—in or out of court.” In meting out this particular miscarriage of justice, the Supreme Court recently refused to hear the case of a pregnant woman who was repeatedly tasered by Seattle police during a routine traffic stop simply because she refused to sign a speeding ticket.
Malaika Brooks, 33 years old and seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school on a November morning in 2004, when she was pulled over for driving 32 mph in a 20 mph school zone. Instructing her son to walk the rest of the way to school, Malaika handed over her driver’s license to Officer Juan Ornelas for processing. However, when instructed to sign the speeding ticket—which the state inexplicably requires, Malaika declared that she wished to contest the charge, insisting that she had not done anything wrong and fearing that signing the ticket would signify an admission of guilt.
What happened next is a cautionary tale for anyone who still thinks that they can defy a police officer, even if it’s simply to disagree about a speeding ticket. Rather than issuing a verbal warning to the clearly pregnant (and understandably emotional) woman, Officer Ornelas called for backup. Officer Donald Jones subsequently arrived and told Brooks to sign the ticket. Again she refused. The conversation became heated. The cops called in more backup. The next to arrive was Sergeant Steven Daman, who directed Brooks to sign the ticket, pointing out that if she failed to do so, she would be arrested and taken to jail. Again, Malaika refused.
On orders from Sgt. Daman, Ornelas ordered a distraught Brooks to get out of the car, telling her she was “going to jail.” Malaika refused, and the second cop, Jones, responded by pulling out his taser electro-shock weapon, asking her if she knew what it was and warning her it would be used on her if she continued to resist. Brooks told him “No,” and then said, “I have to go to the bathroom, I am pregnant, I’m less than 60 days from having my baby.”
Jones and Ornelas then proceeded to discuss how best to taser the pregnant woman and forcibly remove her from the car. One officer said, “Well, don’t do it in her stomach; do it in her thigh.” Opening the car door, Ornelas twisted Malaika’s arm behind her back. Desperate, Brooks held on tightly to the steering wheel, while Jones cycled the taser as a demonstration of its capacity to cause pain.
With the taser in a “drive-stun” mode, Officer Jones then pressed the taser against Brooks’ thigh while Ornelas held her hand behind her back. Brooks, in obvious pain, began to cry and honk her car horn—hoping someone would help. Thirty-six seconds later, Ornelas pressed it into her left arm. Six seconds later, he again stunned her, this time on the neck. After being tasered numerous times, Brooks’ pregnant body eventually gave way. As Malaika fell over and out of the car, the officers dragged her onto the street, placing the pregnant woman face down on the pavement, handcuffing her and transporting her to jail.
While Malaika Brooks’ ordeal with the police did not seem to negatively impact her unborn child—she gave birth to a healthy baby girl two months after the altercation—Malaika bears permanent burn scars on her body where she was tasered by police. Thus, looking to the courts to hopefully right the wrong against her, Malaika sued the arresting officers, charging them with use of excessive force and violating her constitutional rights.
Unfortunately, this is where what happened to Malaika Brooks at the hands of the police—behavior that should be roundly condemned and prohibited—becomes yet another example of the cowardice of our justice system and the corrupt nature of life in a police state. Even though the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals recognized that Malaika posed no threat to anyone, nor did she pose a physical threat to the officers, that none of her offenses were serious, and that officers clearly used “excessive force” against her, the justices granted qualified immunity to the officers—a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court ostensibly upheld when it refused to hear the case. In doing so, the courts have essentially given police carte blanche authority when it comes to using tasers against American citizens.
Indeed, this case highlights a growing trend in which police officers use tasers to force individuals into compliance in relatively non-threatening situations. Originally designed to restrain violent criminals, tasers are now used with impunity against individuals who pose no bodily harm to the police. Rowdy schoolchildren, the elderly, and mentally ill individuals are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of these sometimes lethal electroshock devices. Cops who have been shocked in the course of their training have described being tased as “the most profound pain,” and “like getting punched 100 times in a row.”
Police looking for absolute deference to their authority are quick to utilize tasers. For example, there have been a number of incidents where suspects of minor crimes and even completely innocent people were electroshocked into compliance by cops. In Florida, a 15-year-old girl was tased and pepper sprayed after being taken off of a bus following a disturbance. In Arizona, a run-away 9-year-old girl was tased as she sat in the back seat of a police car with her hands cuffed behind her back. In Oregon, police tased a blind and partially deaf 71-year-old multiple times in her own front yard. In another instance, a Florida woman, 12-weeks pregnant, was tased after refusing to submit to a strip search at a jail. She spontaneously miscarried seven days later. In Texas, a 72-year-old great-grandmother was tased after refusing to sign a speeding ticket.
While law enforcement advocates may suggest otherwise, these incongruous and excessive uses of force by the police are quickly becoming the rule, not the exception. A 2011 New York Civil Liberties Union report showed that of the eight police departments surveyed across the state, over 85 percent of taser uses occurred in cases where suspects were not armed. Incredibly, 40 percent of taser uses were aimed at the elderly, children, the mentally ill, or the severely intoxicated. And despite claims that tasers de-escalate tense situations, a Michigan State University study shows that suspects are more likely to be injured in incidences where police use stun guns (41% of the time), rather than when no stun gun is used (29% of the time).
Moreover, although tasers are touted as being non-lethal, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests otherwise. A study recently published by the American Heart Association has determined that taser shocks applied to the chest can lead to cardiac arrest. According to cardiologist Byron Lee, “This is no longer arguable. This is a scientific fact.”
Since 2001, over 500 people have died after being stunned with tasers. In a 2008 report, Amnesty International reviewed hundreds of deaths following taser use and found that 90 percent of those who died after being struck with a taser were unarmed. In late 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture declared that the use of tasers constituted a form of torture. Yet despite all of the evidence that tasers are dangerous, taser technology continues to rapidly advance. One of the most recent advances in taser technology is the X12 Taser shotgun, which fires taser rounds at a distance of up to 100 feet, adding nearly 80 feet in range compared to a regular handheld taser. It would not be a stretch to envision police using the X12 against protesters simply exercising their right to free speech and assembly under the First Amendment.
While it is tempting to paint all law enforcement officials as brutish thugs, I truly do not believe that is the case. I have known many honorable law enforcement officials who sincerely struggle with how best to balance the demands placed on them by higher ups in government with the need to treat those around them with respect and dignity.
As John Lennon once remarked, “The trouble with government as it is, is that it doesn’t represent the people. It controls them.” Indeed, the varied expressions of the government’s growing power—the excessive use of tasers by police on non-threatening individuals, allowing drones to take to the skies domestically for purposes of surveillance, the government’s monitoring of our emails and phone calls, and on and on—which get more troubling by the day, are merely the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical shift underway in how the government views not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but “we the people,” as well.
What this reflects is a move away from a government bound by the rule of law to one that seeks total control over the populace through the imposition of its own self-serving laws on the populace—laws carried out by a police force hired to do the government’s bidding.