Tuesday, November 20, 2001
Panel Recommends County Pay More Than $250,000 To Settle Case Over Courtroom Jolt With Stun Belt
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
The county should pay more than a quarter of a million dollars to a Long Beach man whose criminal case captured national attention when he was jolted in court with a 50,000-volt stun belt, a claims panel recommended yesterday.
Ronnie Hawkins, a career criminal, was shocked by sheriff’s deputies during his sentencing hearing in 1998 when Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani, now a Superior Court judge, ordered the jolt after 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.
At the time of the incident, the jury had already convicted Hawkins of recidivist petty theft, and was hearing evidence on the “strike” allegations that Hawkins had six prior convictions for robbery and attempted robbery dating back to 1978.
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, county lawyers wrote.
Venice civil rights attorney Steve Yagman, who is representing Hawkins in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case.
Hawkins is currently appealing his 25-years-to-life sentence.
Hawkins sued Comparet-Cassani, the Los Angeles Municipal Court, which is now the Los Angeles Superior Court as a result of court unification, the county, the sheriff and the bailiff alleging use of the stun belt was unconstitutional.
In 1998, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson of the Central District of California issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the use of the stun belt, saying it violated several constitutional rights.
In a 3-0 decision earlier this year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Comparet-Cassani violated Hawkins’ rights when she ordered the jolt.
The panel found the district judge to be correct in ruling 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 Ninth Circuit ruled.
Hawkins, who won a new trial after the injunction was issued, was retried and was again convicted.
As a result of the Ninth Circuit opinion, the Sheriff’s Department has modified its policy to comply with the restrictions set out by the decision.
County Counsel estimated going to trial would cost the county more than half a million dollars. If the recommendation is approved the county Board of Supervisors, Hawkins will be awarded $275,000.
Deputy County Counsel Roger Granbo declined comment on the case pending a final decision by the board, which must approve settlement payments over $100,000.
The county Claims Board also recommended settlement of seven additional lawsuits for a total of over $3.2 million, including a $1.15 million payment to the family of a Compton man who was shot and killed by Sheriff’s deputies who suspected him of drinking in public.
If approved, the seven settlements will cost the county $3,264,135.
Bryant Hunter died in 1998 a week after sheriff’s deputies shot him in the arm during a foot pursuit in Compton.
The panel directly settled two other claims for amounts totaling more than $110,000, including one for $75,000 brought by Ki Hwan Cho and S & S Enterprises after a sheriff’s deputy unlawfully seized a shipment of T-shirts.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company