Last week accused sniper John Allen Muhammad raised a point of legal procedure and received a shocking response -- literally. Muhammad objected to a medical test that had not been ordered by the court or discussed with his attorney. In response to his refusal to cooperate, the guards activated a stun belt that sent a powerful electrical charge through his body.
While few people in this region have sympathy for Muhammad, the use of a 50,000-volt shock was a disturbing introduction to this common device. In fact, the use of the stun belt in such a circumstance is unlawful but not unique. Stun belts have been denounced internationally as a violation of basic human rights. Local government and Congress should insist on new guidelines, if not a ban, on the use of these devices.
At $800 each, stun belts are the closest thing to a fashion craze in the correctional field. For the well-appointed prosecutor or prison guard, they're a must. The devices are battery-operated and fit around the waist of a prisoner. The guard holds a simple remote control that sends an eight-second, 50,000- to 70,000-volt surge through a prisoner, causing immediate loss of muscular control and incapacitation. When shocked, many individuals will defecate or urinate on themselves. Some can experience fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Muscular weakness and temporary paralysis or weakness continue for 30 to 45 minutes. Last spring Wisconsin sheriffs held a public display to show the media how harmless tasers (stun guns) and stun belts are by shocking one of their own deputies, appropriately named Krist Boldt. Boldt was hit with a five-second jolt and was sent to the hospital with a head wound after he hit the floor.
The increasing use of stun belts in the United States has alarmed some of our closest friends internationally. Stun belts have been defined as a torture device by Amnesty International, which describes them as "cruel, inhumane and degrading." The United Nations Committee Against Torture has objected that they may violate the Geneva Conventions.
Despite such human rights objections, stun belts are used in 30 state prisons and all federal trial courts. For prisoners, they have the same effect as a taser gun pointed continually an inch from their heads. At any moment, a guard can flip a switch and turn you into a quivering, incapacitated freak. Indeed, the stun belt's ability "to humiliate the wearer" is cited as a "great advantage" by one company's literature -- impressing on a defendant that "the mere push of a button in someone else's hand could make you defecate and urinate yourself."
A court recently found that accidental triggerings occur regularly. For example, murder defendant Roy Hollaway of Las Vegas was at a critical stage of his trial, with a prosecutor pointing to him and asking the jury "how deep, deep into this man's being does this violence run?" As if on cue, Hollaway's stun belt was triggered and 50,000 volts coursed through him. As the jury watched, Hollaway flailed and foamed on the courtroom floor.
It is because of the constant threat of an intentional or accidental shock that some courts have banned or restricted the use of stun belts in court. Last year the California Supreme Court effectively banned the use of hidden belts during criminal trials, rejecting claims that conventional restraints and proper supervision cannot satisfy security concerns. Other states, such as Indiana, have also banned them.
The use of a stun belt on Muhammad appears abusive and should be investigated as a potential case of criminal assault. In the United States, a prisoner cannot be physically attacked for a refusal to submit to a medical test. In this case, Muhammad reportedly refused to submit to an X-ray without speaking with his counsel. Muhammad had agreed to a court-ordered MRI, but objected that the X-ray was never raised. According to The Post, Muhammad was restrained by the wrists and ankles and never became violent. The stun belt was apparently used to punish him and force him to conform to the wishes of the guards. With stun belt literature promising guards "total psychological supremacy" over inmates, an inmate's failure to yield can enrage a guard and easily lead to such "corrective action."
There is no difference between this alleged use of a stun belt and an officer beating Muhammad with a club or shooting him for failing to yield to commands. Yet such abuses are rarely treated as criminal matters. In June 1998, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani ordered a deputy to shock a defendant, Ronnie Hawkins, after he repeatedly interrupted her. A judicial review board refused to impose disciplinary action on the judge, who continues to try cases in California.
Various ways exist to control or punish an uncooperative prisoner short of some Pavlovian use of electric shocks. In Muhammad's case, he could have been punished administratively for the failure to obey an order, assuming that he was wrong.
Stun belts should be prohibited from use in court and in all but the most extreme correctional circumstances. At a minimum, this case calls for new restrictions and training and a commitment to prosecute guards who use excessive force.
The writer is Shapiro professor of public interest law and directs a prison project at George Washington Law School. He will answer questions about this column during a Live Online discussion at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com.