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Stun Belt Used for First Time on Defendant in L.A. Court

Punishment: Judge orders shock administered to silence man. Critics protest that he posed no danger.

July 09, 1998|JACK LEONARD and MILES CORWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ronnie Hawkins, a defendant in a three-strikes hearing, did not try to escape from the Long Beach courtroom. He did not attack a lawyer. He did not lunge at a witness.

His courtroom offense that outraged Municipal Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani was talking too much.

In a decision that was shocking to many--in particular the defendant, who was fitted with an electronic security belt under his jailhouse jumpsuit--the judge ordered her bailiff to administer a bone-jarring 50,000-volt jolt of electricity to Hawkins.

When Hawkins was zapped last week, he earned the dubious distinction of being the first defendant in Los Angeles County whose electronic security belt was activated. Courtroom observers said Hawkins grimaced and sat stiff as a board as he endured the eight-second current of electricity.

"If the guy was fighting with the bailiffs, I can understand using the belt to restrain him, but that was absolutely not the case," said Deputy Public Defender Jacques Cain, who watched in court as he waited for a client's hearing. "To physically punish a defendant for speaking out of turn seems . . . outrageous."

Hawkins, who acted as his own attorney in the three-strikes hearing, angered the judge by continually interrupting her.

Comparet-Cassani said that a code of judicial ethics prevented her from discussing the case while it was still pending, and declined to comment.

For more than two years, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies have fitted some defendants--who are escape risks or who have a history of violent behavior in custody--with the high-tech law enforcement tool, which is battery-operated and delivers a shock above the left kidney. But deputies apparently had never activated a belt until last week.

Hawkins, 48, of Long Beach, was convicted in April of petty theft. But because he had two prior felonies, the "petty theft with a prior" offense was classified as a felony and considered a third strike.

The three-strikes sentencing hearing last week was continued until July 29 because Hawkins said he needed more time to recuperate from the electric shock.

The human rights group Amnesty International has waged a two-year campaign against the use of the electronic belt. British scientists have concluded that the belt's shock poses health risks for people with heart ailments, said Angela Wright, a researcher at Amnesty's London headquarters. Wright added that the belt can easily be abused by prison guards as a torture instrument.

Transcripts and interviews show that court officials believed that Hawkins should wear the belt because he had been violent in jail and disrupted court proceedings during his trial.

But the incident last week has left some Long Beach attorneys outraged at the judge's order. The device should only be used, they contend, to prevent an escape or a violent act.

Stun belts are so new that their use still needs to be resolved, according to Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School dean. There are other, less aggressive ways to control loud but nonviolent defendants, Levenson said.

"I certainly believe that the court has the right to control security in the courtroom, but I think that people would be shocked to hear that a stun belt was being used to stop a defendant from talking," she said. "It seems to me rather radical."

Not everyone in the courtroom last Tuesday, however, disapproved of Comparet-Cassani's decision.

"She let him talk a long time and when it was her turn to talk, he kept interrupting her and kept interrupting her and interrupting her," said Edward Cook, a deputy public defender. "The guy was out of line and he got spanked. That's all. It wasn't a big deal to me."

More than 15 states and 100 counties across the country strap inmates into the REACT stun belt, according to Dennis Kaufman, president of Cleveland, Ohio-based Stun-Tech Inc., the belt's manufacturer. A peace officer can activate the belt up to 300 feet from the wearer by switching on a remote control.

Since it came on the market five years ago, the belt has been used 27 times--eight of those by accident--to shock wearers across the country, Kaufman said. The shock, he said, poses few medical risks for wearers because the amperage is low.

Sgt. Richard Johnson, who trains courthouse deputies to use the belt, said it is "more humane and less intrusive" than other means of force because it protects deputies and innocent bystanders by allowing control of a defendant from a safe distance. Deputies activate the belt by using a device similar to a television remote control.

Defendants who are made to wear the belt are given a form beforehand that tells them they could get an electric shock for failing to comply with an officer's verbal command, Johnson said. In a court, that would include the judge's command, Johnson said.

But Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge said that sheriff's officials gave out different guidelines when the belts were first introduced.

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