How Much Pain Can Cops Inflict On You? John Roberts To Decide This, Ugh
Hey, fun exercise: imagine nine people getting together to talk about tiny little gadgets that were invented specifically to cause agonizing pain, and figure out the parameters of who is allowed to use them on you, and in what context? Sounds awesome, right? Now, what if one of these nine people were, say, Antonin Scalia, and the arguments gave him the opportunity to use the phrase "useful pain technique," probably while laughing uproariously? EVEN BETTER, right? This is happening, right now, as the Supreme Court considers the case of three cops who tased a seven-months-pregnant lady over a traffic ticket, while her horrified son watched!
Let's let the New York Times explain how things went down in the Exciting Case of the Pregnant Seattle Lady Who Got Tased:
The case involves Malaika Brooks, who was seven months pregnant and driving her 11-year-old son to school in Seattle when she was pulled over for speeding. The police say she was going 32 miles per hour in a school zone; the speed limit was 20.
Ms. Brooks said she would accept a ticket but drew the line at signing it, which state law required at the time. Ms. Brooks thought, wrongly, that signing was an acknowledgment of guilt.
Refusing to sign was a crime, and the two officers on the scene summoned a sergeant, who instructed them to arrest Ms. Brooks. She would not get out of her car.
The situation plainly called for bold action, and Officer Juan M. Ornelas met the challenge by brandishing a Taser and asking Ms. Brooks if she knew what it was.
She did not, but she told Officer Ornelas what she did know. 'I have to go to the bathroom,' she said. 'I am pregnant. I'm less than 60 days from having my baby.'
The three men assessed the situation and conferred. 'Well, don't do it in her stomach,' one said. 'Do it in her thigh.'
Officer Ornelas twisted Ms. Brooks's arm behind her back. A colleague, Officer Donald M. Jones, applied the Taser to Ms. Brooks's left thigh, causing her to cry out and honk the car's horn. A half-minute later, Officer Jones applied the Taser again, now to Ms. Brooks's left arm. He waited six seconds before pressing it into her neck.
OK, go have a little lie down for a minute, and then come back, because your Wonkette is going to try for a minute to not be a knee-jerk liberal about this business. Is it possible, even though it is not indicated in this little stage play that the Times lays out for us, that this pregnant lady was having a freak-out at the police officers and was being sweary and abusive? Sure! This happens all the time! Is it true that the cops were put in an awkward position because their state had this dumb law (since rescinded, apparently) under which they had to have the lady sign this piece of paper, and if she didn't sign probably they'd be chewed out by their bosses? Absolutely!
So, if you take it as a given that the cops had to get the lady out of the car, then one of the statements from a judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is also relevant: "There are only so many ways a person can be extracted from a vehicle against her will, and none of them is pretty ... Fists, batons, chokeholds, tear gas and chemical spray all carry their own risks to suspects and officers alike."
OK BUT HERE'S THE THING: If you, say, drag someone out of a car, and you cause pain in the process, though the pain is real, and maybe worse than what you'd get from tasering, it's sort of incidental, right? Like, the action you're taking is still fundamentally getting them out of the car. Just like if some crazy dude is charging you with a knife and you use your taser on him, your goal is to stop him from attacking you in the least lethal way possible. Both these things seem qualitatively different from applying a device specifically designed to cause pain to a person who isn't threatening you in any way. The only point of applying pain is to get them to obey your commands. Isn't there a word for inflicting pain on someone to extract compliance? There is! It's called "torture!" And also "cruel and unusual!" Those are some other words that some people might use.
Also probably lots of people involved in making these decisions aren't doing this careful "Well, will the taser inflict less pain than other techniques?" balancing act. Instead, they're saying things like this!
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski dissented on the first point, saying Ms. Brooks had been 'defiant' and 'deaf to reason' and so had brought the incident upon herself.
As for the officers, he said: 'They deserve our praise, not the opprobrium of being declared constitutional violators. The City of Seattle should award them commendations for grace under fire.'
FYI, the definition of "under fire" has now been broadened from "being shot at" to "being yelled at by some pregnant lady." And also, we literally cannot emphasize enough that Alex Kozinski had a website full of cow porn that came to light while he was presiding over an obscenity trial.
Anyway, the 9th Circuit found that the cops used excessive force but couldn't be sued because the law in 2004 when this all happened was, like, confusing. Not satisfied with this half-assed exoneration, the policemen appealed to the Supreme Court, who will now decide under what circumstances cops can tase you, and we're just going to take a wild guess that they'll decide 5 to 4 that the answer is "all of the circumstances, Katie."
In case you are now worried and depressed, that lady had a child who came out healthy despite its in utero tasing. Oh, and also your Comics Curmudgeon's wife once drove 15 miles an hour over the speed limit in a school zone but instead of having a confrontation with the cops we just got a speed camera photo in the mail and I showed it to her and said "stone cold busted!" and we had a good laugh and wrote a check for $40 and nobody got tased and maybe that's a better way to handle this sort of thing. [NYT]