Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, August 23, 2002


Page 1


Justices Strictly Limit Use of Stun Belts to Restrain Defendants


By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


The use of an electronic belt that allows a court officer to administer a 50,000-volt shock lasting 8-10 seconds as a means of controlling a criminal defendant is permissible only in very narrow circumstances, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 6-1 decision, the high court ordered a new trial for James Allen Mar, sentenced to 26 years to life under the Three-Strikes Law after being convicted of interfering with a peace officer and resisting a peace officer causing serious bodily as a result of an incident in the Kern County city of Taft.

“In light of the nature of the device and its effect upon the wearer when activated, requiring an unwilling defendant to wear a stun belt during trial may have significant psychological consequences that may impair a defendant’s capacity to concentrate on the events of the trial, interfere with the defendant’s ability to assist his or her counsel, and adversely affect his or her demeanor in the presence of the jury,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote for the court.

Because Mar’s demeanor while testifying may have been affected by fear of the belt being activated, and because the evidence in his case was so closely contested that his demeanor while testifying may have affected the outcome, the use of the belt without a showing of sufficient justification was prejudicial, George added.

‘Serious Business’

Justice Janice Rogers Brown dissented, arguing that “courtroom security is a serious business” and suggesting that the court should have either deferred to the Legislature or waited for a case with a fuller record.

“Instead, the majority, rushing to judgment after conducting an embarrassing search for information outside the record, has tied the hands of the Legislature, to the likely peril of judges, bailiffs, and ordinary citizens called upon to do their civic duty,” the dissenting jurist wrote.

Brown criticized the sources relied upon by the majority, including a comment in the St. Mary’s Law Journal and an article in the Progressive, a liberal monthly. George responded with a footnote pointing out that the St. Mary’s article has been cited by other federal and state appeals courts and that its factual statements about stun belt technology are consistent with those in other publications.

Technology Lacking

Only one type of belt is currently available, George noted. The lack of available technology that would permit the operator to administer a briefer or less powerful shock is a factor that judges must consider in deciding whether to approve the use of the Stun-Tech Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology, or REACT, belt, the chief justice said.

While state and federal courts have laid down clear guidelines on the use of more traditional, low-tech, restraints such as chains and shackles, California courts were previously divided on whether those same rules applied to the stun belt, which is less likely to become visible to jurors.

The high court yesterday answered that question in the affirmative, and laid down additional strictures that trial judges must follow before allowing the use of the belt.

The justices overruled the Fifth District Court of Appeal, which held that there was adequate justification for requiring Mar—who had prior convictions for escape and assault, and had allegedly threatened correctional officers and his own attorney shortly before trial—to wear the belt.

Before the wearing of the belt may be ordered, George said, the trial court must first that a defendant poses “a sufficient danger of violent conduct in the courtroom to demonstrate a manifest need for the use of a restraint.” That determination must be made on the basis of facts on the record, the chief justice emphasized.

Once it finds that restraints are necessary, the chief justice said, the trial judge must also consider the peculiar risks of the stun beltóincluding the possibility of accidental activation, any medical condition that would render use of the device on a particular defendant unduly dangerous, and the psychological effect on the defendant’s ability to testify and to assist counsel.

There must also be a specific finding that the use of more traditional restraints will not meet the security needs of the court, George said.

Los Angeles County’s use of the belt gained national attention when a belligerent defendant with a significant criminal history was shocked by deputies while jurors were considering the “strike” allegations in the second phase of his 1998 trial.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani ordered the jolt after Ronnie Hawkins interrupted her repeatedly and violated her orders not to tell jurors that he was HIV-positive or that he was facing a 25-year-to-life sentence under the three-strikes law.

Hawkins had been fitted with the stun belt prior to the hearing at the request of the Sheriff’s Department after he had threatened violence while he was in custody. But use of the belt as an apparent punitive measure, rather than as a restraining device to protect court officers and the public, had a number of repercussions.

The judge drew private discipline from the Commission on Judicial Performance, and the countyó-in addition to paying Hawkins $250,000 to settle his civil rights lawsuitó-was enjoined by a federal judge from using the belt as a form of punishment.

The injunction was upheld by a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel, which held that the use of the stun belt to subdue a defendant who is merely being verbally disruptive inhibits the ability to present a defense and thus violates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

    The device can, however, be used if there is a security threat, the panel ruled.

    Yesterday’s case is People v. Mar, 02 S.O.S. 4412.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company