Once again, the United States Supreme Court has proven Clarence Darrow, a civil liberties attorney and long-time advocate for the Constitution, correct in his assertion that “there is no such thing as justice—in or out of court.” In meting out this particular miscarriage of justice, the Supreme Court recently refused to hear the case of a pregnant woman who was repeatedly tasered by Seattle police during a routine traffic stop simply because she refused to sign a speeding ticket.
Malaika Brooks, 33 years old and seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school on a November morning in 2004, when she was pulled over for driving 32 mph in a 20 mph school zone. Instructing her son to walk the rest of the way to school, Malaika handed over her driver’s license to Officer Juan Ornelas for processing. However, when instructed to sign the speeding ticket—which the state inexplicably requires, Malaika declared that she wished to contest the charge, insisting that she had not done anything wrong and fearing that signing the ticket would signify an admission of guilt.
What happened next is a cautionary tale for anyone who still thinks that they can defy a police officer, even if it’s simply to disagree about a speeding ticket. Rather than issuing a verbal warning to the clearly pregnant (and understandably emotional) woman, Officer Ornelas called for backup. Officer Donald Jones subsequently arrived and told Brooks to sign the ticket. Again she refused. The conversation became heated. The cops called in more backup. The next to arrive was Sergeant Steven Daman, who directed Brooks to sign the ticket, pointing out that if she failed to do so, she would be arrested and taken to jail. Again, Malaika refused.
On orders from Sgt. Daman, Ornelas ordered a distraught Brooks to get out of the car, telling her she was “going to jail.” Malaika refused, and the second cop, Jones, responded by pulling out his taser electro-shock weapon, asking her if she knew what it was and warning her it would be used on her if she continued to resist. Brooks told him “No,” and then said, “I have to go to the bathroom, I am pregnant, I’m less than 60 days from having my baby.”
Jones and Ornelas then proceeded to discuss how best to taser the pregnant woman and forcibly remove her from the car. One officer said, “Well, don’t do it in her stomach; do it in her thigh.” Opening the car door, Ornelas twisted Malaika’s arm behind her back. Desperate, Brooks held on tightly to the steering wheel, while Jones cycled the taser as a demonstration of its capacity to cause pain.
With the taser in a “drive-stun” mode, Officer Jones then pressed the taser against Brooks’ thigh while Ornelas held her hand behind her back. Brooks, in obvious pain, began to cry and honk her car horn—hoping someone would help. Thirty-six seconds later, Ornelas pressed it into her left arm. Six seconds later, he again stunned her, this time on the neck. After being tasered numerous times, Brooks’ pregnant body eventually gave way. As Malaika fell over and out of the car, the officers dragged her onto the street, placing the pregnant woman face down on the pavement, handcuffing her and transporting her to jail.
Unfortunately, this is where what happened to Malaika Brooks at the hands of the police—behavior that should be roundly condemned and prohibited—becomes yet another example of the cowardice of our justice system and the corrupt nature of life in a police state. Even though the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals recognized that Malaika posed no threat to anyone, nor did she pose a physical threat to the officers, that none of her offenses were serious, and that officers clearly used “excessive force” against her, the justices granted qualified immunity to the officers—a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court ostensibly upheld when it refused to hear the case. In doing so, the courts have essentially given police carte blanche authority when it comes to using tasers against American citizens.
Indeed, this case highlights a growing trend in which police officers use tasers to force individuals into compliance in relatively non-threatening situations. Originally designed to restrain violent criminals, tasers are now used with impunity against individuals who pose no bodily harm to the police. Rowdy schoolchildren, the elderly, and mentally ill individuals are increasingly finding themselves on the receiving end of these sometimes lethal electroshock devices. Cops who have been shocked in the course of their training have described being tased as “the most profound pain,” and “like getting punched 100 times in a row.”
While law enforcement advocates may suggest otherwise, these incongruous and excessive uses of force by the police are quickly becoming the rule, not the exception. A 2011 New York Civil Liberties Union report showed that of the eight police departments surveyed across the state, over 85 percent of taser uses occurred in cases where suspects were not armed. Incredibly, 40 percent of taser uses were aimed at the elderly, children, the mentally ill, or the severely intoxicated.
As John Lennon once remarked, “The trouble with government as it is, is that it doesn’t represent the people. It controls them.” Indeed, the varied expressions of the government’s growing power—the excessive use of tasers by police on non-threatening individuals, allowing drones to take to the skies domestically for purposes of surveillance, the government’s monitoring of our emails and phone calls, and on and on—which get more troubling by the day, are merely the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical shift under way in how the government views not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but “we the people,” as well.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.