The ongoing case of a Seattle woman who was repeatedly tased while seven-months pregnant entered a new phase after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the police used excessive force and that their actions violated the Constitution’s protection from unreasonable force. However the police officers who repeatedly tased her for not signing a speeding ticket during a 2004 traffic stop cannot be sued in federal court because the law governing Taser use was unclear at the time.
Malaika Brooks was taking her son to school when officers clocked her Dodge Intrepid doing 32 mph in a 20-mph school zone. The officers motioned her over and wrote her a ticket, but she refused to sign it despite the officers explaining that it did not mean she was admitting guilt. Brooks believed she could accept a ticket without signing for it, which she claimed she had done once before. The officers called their supervisor who told them to arrest the visibly pregnant woman if she refused to sign the ticket. After she continued to refuse, officers struggled to get her out of the car as she held onto the steering wheel. To prompt her compliance, officers tased her once in the thigh and, seeing no clear effect, twice in the neck with 50,000 volts. She was taken to the ground, handcuffed and placed in a patrol car. At the station medics recommended she be evaluated at a hospital. Thankfully, she delivered a healthy baby girl.
At her criminal trial, Brooks was charged with refusing to obey an officer and resisting arrest. She was found guilty of the first for not signing the ticket, but the jury could not decide whether she resisted arrest, the reason she was tased.
Brooks brought a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim and enjoyed an initial victory at the trial court level before the question was appealed to an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit. The majority concluded that Brooks’ traffic violation was not serious and that she never posed a serious threat to the officers. While she bore “some responsibility for the escalation of this incident,” the judges considered two “overwhelmingly salient” factors that weighed in Brooks’ favor: She had told the officers she was within 60 days of delivering her baby, and that after learning of this, the officers took time to discuss how they should proceed and even where they should apply the Taser.
However, in the decision, the court said the officers weren’t liable in the civil suits filed against them because the law governing Taser use was not clearly established at the time of Brooks’ 2004 arrest. Six months after her incident, Seattle adopted a new policy on Taser use informing officers to be extra careful with pregnant women and be sure that “the need to stop the behavior should clearly justify the potential for additional risks.”
The 9th Circuit did not leave Brooks totally without recourse, affirming “that the officers are not entitled to Washington state qualified immunity for Brooks’s assault and battery claim,” leaving open an action in state court.