You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Supreme Court could decide the future of Tasers

February 27, 2009

With a Washington County deputy struggling to force him to his feet, Jesse Buckley didn't kick, flail his cuffed hands or try to run.

He wept.

That was enough for Buckley, arrested after refusing to sign a speeding citation, to receive three, 50,000-volt shocks from Deputy Jonathan Rackard's Taser as he screamed and rolled around on the ground.

Recorded by a camera from inside Rackard's police cruiser, the 2004 North Florida incident has been seen by more than 25,000 on YouTube.com and could become an integral part of the controversial debate over the increased use of shock devices.

The clip is evidence in the case of Buckley v. Haddock, a complaint submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court that could lead to the high court's first ruling on Tasers.

Should the high court decide to hear the case, Florida will find itself back in the forefront in the ongoing debate over the use of stun guns, which temporarily paralyze their victims. Police say the weapon is the safest way to quash a tense situation or bring down an unruly subject. But medical experts debate its health hazards or lack-there-of and judicial panels continue to issue rulings on cases involving alleged abuse of the weapon.

Miami was the city Taser International, the largest manufacturer of stun guns, chose to launch its civilian push in 2005.

Likening Rackard's use of the weapon to a cattle prod, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed the petition earlier this month after an 11th Judicial Circuit panel last year ruled the use of the Taser against Buckley was not excessive.

Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of ACLU of Florida, said that as it stands, the ruling could sanction abuse of the weapon by Florida's law enforcement.

But just as important, attorneys say, is that a Supreme Court ruling on the case could affect Taser use by law enforcement throughout the country.

''Any ruling by the Supreme Court on use of a Taser would have significant nationwide implications,'' Kayanan said.

It was in Gainesville where Andrew Meyer made ''Don't Tase me, Bro'' a catch phrase after a clip of University of Florida police shocking him with a Taser during a John Kerry Q&A made it onto YouTube.com.

And last December, Miami-Dade and Broward counties received the dubious notoriety of making an Amnesty International list of the top-10 counties where the most Taser-related deaths occurred over an seven-year period.

The recently released USA: Less than Lethal? report reviewed 334 deaths in the United States involving Tasers between 2001 and 2008. Of those deaths, 52 were in Florida. Six died in Broward and five in Miami-Dade.

Researchers behind the study have called for greater regulation in the use of stun guns and further research.

''It should be considered a potentially lethal weapon and there hasn't been enough research yet,'' said Angela Wright, an Amnesty International researcher. ``There has to be strict control of their use.''

In Broward County alone, there are more than 2,500 Tasers available for law enforcement officers, as every police department has purchased the weapons. Even the quiet village of Key Biscayne purchased an order of the stun guns in January.

Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, said the comparisons to torture devices and statements that research has been scant are misleading.

Tuttle noted that the Amnesty International study was admittedly unscientific and that of the 334 deaths reviewed in the study, an overwhelming majority were found to have been caused by a high dosage of stimulants or preexisting health disorders.

Tuttle acknowledged that as a law enforcement tool, a Taser can be abused just like a baton or pepper spray, but he also said if a Taser is used in an improper way, it is difficult for law enforcement to hide the truth.

''No other product has a chip that records the time, rate and duration of an application,'' Tuttle said. ``We put that in there as a law enforcement tool. It's an audit that's a double-edged sword. If an officer is lying, he's going to get caught.''

And even as some studies question the use of Tasers, independent research done by universities such as Florida Gulf Coast University and Wake Forest University suggest the weapon not only is safe for use, but also saves officers and suspects from injuries.

''Right now, it does seem to be the best tool for the job and success rates are pretty high,'' said Charlie Mesloh, director of the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Mesloh reviewed Taser deployments among Orlando police and Orange County sheriff's deputies during a three-year period and said he found that an officer would have been justified in using a gun during 500 out of 4,303 cases in which a Taser was used.

Even critics agree that the Tasers can serve a useful role, often leaving the debate to focus on how and when the device should be used and on whom.

''That is the critical question because the Taser can produce benefits and has potential for detrimental outcomes,'' said Lorie Fridell, a board member of the ACLU of Florida and a criminology professor at the University of South Florida.

But weighing the pros and cons is difficult because there is no way to quantify how many lives the device has saved.

''It's so much easier to measure the number of people who have died after Taser use than it is to measure and document lives that were saved because a Taser was used,'' Fridell said.

No comments: