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Stun belts zapped by civil liberties groups.

A California judge's decision to deliver a brief but searing electrical jolt to a defendant to tame his unruly interruptions in her courtroom has brought a new wave of praise and criticism for law enforcement's use of "stun belts."

Defendant Ronnie Hawkins was wearing a stun belt, known as REACT (Remote Electronic Activated Control Technology), when he was "zapped" during his sentencing hearing on a theft conviction last summer. Hawkins was representing himself, and he repeatedly interrupted the judge, despite her orders that he stop.

Hawkins, who was not injured in the incident, filed suit against the state for civil rights violations. A federal judge in January issued an injunction against the Los Angeles County Sheriffs' Department, barring deputies from using stun belts. The judge granted class-action status to Hawkins's case, allowing other defendants who were forced to wear stun belts to join the litigation. (Hawkins v. Comparet-Cassani No. CV-98-5605 DDP (CWX) (C.D. Cal. Jan. 25, 1999).)

Also, Long Beach (California) Municipal Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani is under investigation by the California Commission on Judicial Performance for alleged misconduct on the bench.

Dennis Kaufman, president of stun belt manufacturer Stun-Tech in Cleveland, said the case was unusual in that a judge was behind the order to activate the belt. "If anybody was expecting somebody to get zapped, I'm sure they would have thought it would have come from a corrections officer," Kaufman said.

The remote-control stun belts, when activated, deliver an eight-second 50,000-volt shock to a spot just above the wearer's left kidney, causing temporary debilitating pain. The belts, which cost $700 each, are most often used in correctional settings when transporting inmates to court or from one facility to another, but they are also used in courtrooms during trials and in other public places as a replacement for shackles or handcuffs.

Law enforcement officers favor the devices because they can activate them from up to 300 feet away and because the belts have proven to be a deterrent to escape or assault by prisoners known to be violent.

The human rights organization Amnesty International, however, has criticized the stun belt as an implement of torture, prone to abuse by its users and dangerous to people with heart conditions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California couched its criticism, citing the need to balance the rights of people who wear the belts with police officers' need to keep the peace in public places.

"These belts were originally designed to control physically violent defendants for whom no other means of restraint by law enforcement agents was possible," said Elizabeth Schroeder, assistant executive director of the ACLU-Southern California.

"Their use must be restricted solely to these rare instances when a defendant becomes violent and threatens the physical safety of court personnel and the public, and [when] law enforcement has no other means to restrain the person," she said. Regarding the Hawkins case, she said, "we strongly feel that the use there violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and that it also violated the defendant's right to due process. There are less violent ways to handle a situation like that."

Mort Feldman, executive vice president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Washington, D.C., said his organization has few qualms about the belts.

"The stun belt, when properly used according to unambiguous policies and procedures set out by the department and with input from medical staff, can be an effective law enforcement tool without being an instrument of torture," Feldman said.

"All that said, we do need to be cautious [about the wearer's physical health]," he added. "If `Inmate X' has a pacemaker, no stun belt. End of story."

Stun belts were introduced in 1991 by Stun-Tech. Kaufman said his company has sold 1,500 belts to law enforcement and corrections agencies that range from the Colorado State Department of Correction --one of the first organizations to use them--to the U.S. Marshal Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Kaufman added that--based on reports he asks buyers to give the company--the belts have been worn 50,000 times since they first went on the market.

"In all that time, the belt has only been activated 30 times," Kaufman said. "What everybody is overlooking is that the person wearing the belt knows, going in, that whether an officer activates the belt is based on the inmate's behavior.

"If he wants to act like a jerk or pick up a chair or try to escape, he's going to get a warning tone on the belt that the officer is going to activate it," Kaufman said. "They'll sound that tone a couple of times as a wake-up call." If the wearer continues his behavior, Kaufman said, the belt will then be activated.

Feldman of the police chiefs organization was circumspect about the use of stun belts.

"Any tool or any weapon, if you will, can be misused. Let's face it," Feldman said. "To say that stun belts have never been abused is absurd, and to say that everybody abuses them is unacceptable. So it is with guns that officers carry. Are we to disarm all officers? I don't think so.

"As technology goes on, I think we're going to find more and more things that are certainly going to be the subject of abuse by a small percentage of the people who use it," he said. "That should not be an alarm to eliminate the item from the arsenal that officers need to do their jobs effectively. It's not a question of eliminating the tool but sanctioning the individuals who abuse them."
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Association for Justice
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Brienza, Julie
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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