Amnesty International weighed in Monday in support of a $50-million civil rights lawsuit filed by a criminal defendant who was jolted with 50,000 volts of electricity during a courtroom confrontation with a Long Beach municipal judge.
The London-based human rights organization said use of the remote-controlled stun belt could violate international treaties banning torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
Those treaties are "fully binding on the United States and the county of Los Angeles," Amnesty International attorney Paul L. Hoffman wrote in a friend of the court brief in support of Ronnie Hawkins' lawsuit.
Hawkins, a three-strikes defendant convicted of stealing $265 worth of over-the-counter painkillers, sued Municipal Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani and the Sheriff's Department after he was zapped with electricity while representing himself during a June 30 sentencing hearing.
Critics said the judge lost her temper because Hawkins repeatedly interrupted her. The judge contends that she ordered a bailiff to activate the stun belt because Hawkins was apparently trying to free himself from a handcuff and she feared for her safety.
The California Commission on Judicial Performance, which has authority to discipline judges, is investigating the incident and the Sheriff's Department is reviewing its policy on the use of such belts.
In its federal court brief Monday, Amnesty International said it does not take the position that the use of the stun belt invariably constitutes torture. Each case must be decided on its own, it said.
"There is no doubt that the allegations in plaintiff's complaint, and the factual circumstances of this case, state a claim of torture under international law," the brief added.
"As set forth in the United States Constitution and countless judicial opinions, international law is a fundamental part of United States law," the brief continues.
"It is particularly important that United States law and practice reflect the international consensus prohibiting torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Amnesty International criticized the use of stun belts in a report issued two weeks ago on alleged human rights abuses in the United States.
At the time, the group called for a ban on law enforcement use of electroshock devices and chemical sprays until their physiological effects are more fully known.
Hawkins has a date in Long Beach Municipal Court on Friday for a hearing to determine if he should be granted a new trial.
If his conviction stands, he faces 25 years to life in prison.