Tasering a pregnant woman: excessive police force or not?

Seattle officers contest appeal court verdict on 2004 confrontation over speeding ticket

Los Angeles

Malaika Brooks, who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school when Seattle police flagged her down, on suspicion of speeding. She had been travelling, they claimed, at 32mph. The local speed limit was 20.

Ms Brooks disagreed, saying her vehicle must have been mistaken for a black Honda which had just raced in front of her. She agreed to accept a speeding ticket, but refused to sign it, thinking – wrongly – that a signature would count as an admission of guilt.

So began a confrontation that saw Ms Brooks, who is black, given three 50,000-volt shocks with a Taser stun gun, before being bundled from her car and arrested. A long legal battle ensued. It has turned Ms Brooks into a poster child for police brutality, and will finally come before the US Supreme Court next week.

Details of the incident, which occurred in 2004, are not in dispute. After refusing to sign the ticket, Ms Brooks was ordered from her vehicle. Bewildered, she refused. When a Taser was produced, she reminded them she was pregnant. The three officers conferred, and decided not to use the device on her stomach. It was applied to her leg, her arm, and for several seconds to her neck.

She collapsed, was dragged from her car, and placed face down on the street. Her hands were cuffed behind her back. Then she was taken into custody, accused of refusing to sign a speeding ticket (for she was later convicted) and resisting arrest (on which charges were ultimately dismissed).

Weeks later, after giving birth to a healthy baby girl, Ms Brooks filed an "excessive force" lawsuit against the men who arrested her. They unnecessarily subjected her to intense pain, she claimed, caused permanent scarring, and endangered her unborn child.

The case has been winding its way upwards through the court system ever since, costing the City of Seattle hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills, and sparking widespread debate over the exact circumstances under which stun guns should be used.

In October, the US Appeals Court in San Francisco ruled, in a split decision, that the officers had used excessive force. However it added the three men could not be sued, because the law on Taser use was unclear in 2004.

That should have been the end of it. But the officers have now decided to ask the US Supreme Court to reconsider the Appeals Court verdict. Despite having essentially won the case – they cannot now be sued for compensation – they are hoping to clear the "excessive force" count from their record.

Police unions support them, saying that the case, as it stands, "damages the rule of law" because it presents criminals who are pregnant and resist arrest with a "get out of jail free card". On 24 May, the US Supreme Court will hold a private conference to decide whether to hear their argument.

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