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Taser policies may get Supreme Court review

By Staff | Feb 7, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court may change the way stun guns are used, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida petitioned the court on behalf of a north Florida man claiming a law enforcement officer was excessive with the device.
According to officials from the ACLU, this is the first time the issue of stun gun abuse will be heard by the Supreme Court and could change the way officers are allowed to use these devices on the job. The court was petitioned on Tuesday and will send a response within 30 days.
In the petition the ACLU alleges the officer violated the victim’s Fourth Amendment rights — the right of the people to be secure in their person and a ban against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Maria Kayanan, associate legal director for ACLU in Florida, said this case is presenting a very narrow question on the use of stun guns.
“For law enforcement agencies around the country, this has become the instrument of choice. We are hoping the court takes the case,” said Kayanan. “We don’t condone the use of Tasers, but this is a narrow issue of what reasonable force could be used.”
The Eleventh Circuit Court ruled that the use of a stun gun in that circumstance was reasonable and constitutional, said Kayanan. The federal district court held that the officer wasn’t entitled to full immunity, but that opinion was reversed by the circuit court and any further appeals were denied.
Thousands of police departments across the country issue stun guns to their officers. According to Taser, the largest international supplier of stun guns, there are 13,400 law enforcement and military agencies across the country which use the devices.
According to Connie Baron, spokesperson for the City of Cape Coral, local officers use two stun gun models, the M26 and the X26. Both are interchangeable and deploy small cartridges up to 35 feet.
Stun gun technology depends on a phenomenon called neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) which temporarily shuts down the neurological and muscular controls of the body. The brief NMI allows an officer to subdue and take a suspect into custody.
“These Tasers have about 50,000 volts, although voltage is not the main contributor to the NMI,” said Baron. “In fact, it is the amps delivered, not the voltage, which causes NMI.”
While a stun gun’s voltage ensures that the current will pass through a person’s clothing it’s the amount of amps emitted that will cause damage. According to Baron, the devices used by the Cape Coral Police Department emit 0.0021 amps while the common household electrical outlet carries 13 amps.
One bulb on a string of Christmas tree lights, for example, has only 1 amp, according to the All American Christmas Company.
The incident at the core of the ACLU’s petition involved Florida resident Jesse Buckley who was arrested on March 17 for refusing to sign a traffic citation. Deputy Jonathan Rackard processed Buckley, placed him in handcuffs and sat him on the ground near the trunk of his car.
Deputy Rackard attempted to have Buckley — weeping emotionally on the ground — accompany him to his patrol car asking multiple times “Mr. Buckley stand up.” When he didn’t comply the officer warned Buckley that he would use his stun gun — a Taser.
Moments after Buckley replied “I don’t care anymore,” Rackard used the 50,000 volt Taser three times on his skin. The entire incident was captured on Rackard’s dashboard camera mounted in his patrol car and was later uploaded onto You Tube by Buckley’s attorney James Cook.
Stun guns are perceived as a non-lethal alternative for officers, yet a 2009 study by two cardiologists at the University of California at San Francisco found the number of in-custody deaths increased six-fold after a number of police departments began using stun guns. Researchers sent out surveys to police departments across California asking the rates of in-custody sudden deaths in the absence of lethal force.
“Physicians and law enforcement agencies need real-world knowledge of the effects of Taser use so that risks can be weighed in establishing appropriate policies and techniques,” said Dr. Zian H. Tseng, author of the study, in a news release.
Researchers at the university also pointed to studies showing that stun guns make a person more vulnerable to death when used in a struggle, when a person is on narcotics or has increased adrenaline.
“There have been a number of animal and controlled human studies, but none that test how Tasers are used in the real world, where subjects may have pre-existing medical conditions or be under the influence of narcotics,” added Tseng.