- June 28 - As part of its nationwide "Ban the Belt" campaign, Amnesty International
announced today that it has filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief
asking the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court's injunction
against use of stun belts in Los Angeles County courts. Amnesty filed the amicus
brief in the case of Hawkins vs. Comparet-Cassani, a class action lawsuit brought
by Ronnie Hawkins, a nonviolent criminal defendant on trial in Municipal Court
in Long Beach, Calif. The human rights organization contends that the use of stun
belts constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and can amount to torture
The stun belt is one of
a growing array of electro-shock weapons, including the stun gun, stun shield
and taser, increasingly being used by police and prison agencies in the U.S. More
than 130 jurisdictions, including 20 state correctional systems, use the belt,
a device that subjects its wearer to an eight-second, 50,000-volt electric shock
by remote control. Federal, state and local correctional agencies use the belt
on inmates during court appearances and transportation to hospitals; the U.S.
and South Africa are the only nations known to use the stun belt.
"Stun belts can inflict
enormous pain with no more effort than pushing a remote control button," said
Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) General Counsel Paul L. Hoffman, who is also
an attorney at Bostwick & Hoffman LLP in Santa Monica, Calif. "Individuals
in custody may need to be restrained, but they do not need to be brutalized."
The stun belt causes immediate
muscle immobilization, excruciating pain and can result in loss of control of
bodily functions. By the manufacturers' own admission, the weapon can have dangerous
effects on individuals with heart disease, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy and
on those who use tranquilizers. No independent medical testing has been conducted
on human beings. Inmates are rarely, if ever, tested for existing heart or other
health conditions before being fitted with the belt.
The incident at the center
of this court case occurred in June 1998 in a Long Beach, Calif., municipal courtroom.
Hawkins, who was representing himself on charges of stealing several bottles of
aspirin, refused several admonishments by Municipal Court Judge Joan Comparet
-- Cassani to stop talking. The judge responded by ordering Hawkins, who was fitted
with the stun belt, to be shocked with 50,000 volts. Hawkins filed a civil suit
that resulted in the preliminary injunction banning use of the belt.
Amnesty's brief argues that
use of the stun belt violates international law prohibiting torture and cruel,
inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. Amnesty's brief also argues that
" 1/8t 3/8he psychological effects of being forced to wear a device with the capacity
of conducting 50,000 volts of electricity through one's body unquestionably causes
severe mental suffering."
Earlier this month, Amnesty
International released a report titled "Cruelty In Control? The Stun Belt and
Other Electro-shock Equipment in Law Enforcement," which calls for a ban on the
stun belt and suspension of the use of other stun technology pending a "rigorous,
independent and impartial inquiry including thorough medical evaluation (to) prove
that they are safe and will not contribute to deaths in custody, torture or other
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Muhammad Ali has joined
Amnesty's "Ban the Belt" campaign and is featured in print and television ads
appearing across the country. At a news conference to release the report, AIUSA
Executive Director Dr. William F. Schulz was joined by retired New York City Police
Detective Frank Serpico and Laila Ali, a budding boxer and daughter of "The Greatest."
"It is wrong to use high-tech
torture in place of less cruel and degrading restraints," Schulz said. "And it
is wrong for judges to maintain order in the courtroom by zapping defendants.