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$275,000 Offered in Stun-Belt Case

Lawsuit: Inmate accepts settlement. Officials agree to restrict device's use.

August 10, 2001|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County has offered to pay $275,000 to settle a lawsuit by an inmate who was jolted by a stun belt while arguing with a judge, a lawyer in the case said Thursday, adding that the county has agreed to change its policy regarding the use of the device.

The deal between the county and Ronald Hawkins comes after a federal appeals court ruled that the use of stun belts to silence defendants during criminal trials is unconstitutional. To be finalized, the settlement will have to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Stephen Yagman, the attorney for Hawkins, said his client agreed to the settlement Tuesday. "This is a fantastic outcome," Yagman said. "A significantly bad societal policy was changed as a result of the law, and that's very rare."

Under the deal, Yagman said, the county will only use stun belts when there is a credible threat of physical danger or escape. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in May found that this was a legal use of the devices.

That ruling upheld the finding of the federal judge hearing Hawkins' lawsuit, who had issued a preliminary injunction on the use of stun belts in November 1998, months after Hawkins was shocked.

Hawkins was acting as his own attorney during a hearing before Long Beach Judge Joan Comparet-Cassini. He interrupted the judge several times and, violating her order, told jurors he was HIV-positive and faced a sentence of 25 years to life under the state's three-strikes law for stealing $250 of painkillers.

Comparet-Cassini warned Hawkins that the stun belt might be used if he continued to defy her. Hawkins asked her: "You are going to electrocute me for talking?"

"No, sir," Comparet-Cassini replied, "but they will zap you if you keep [interrupting]."

Last month, the Indiana Supreme Court outlawed the use of stun belts in that state, finding that they could limit "aggressive advocacy" by defendants.

"An individual wearing a stun belt may not engage in permissible conduct because of the fear of being subjected to the pain of a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity," Justice Robert D. Rucker wrote for the unanimous court.

The opinion by the 9th Circuit cited the manufacturer's promotional literature, which, the court wrote, touts the "total psychological supremacy [over] troublesome prisoners."

Yagman said Hawkins has also settled a separate lawsuit against the county over an incident in which the inmate left his cell for medical treatment and returned to find his legal papers gone. The county will pay $20,000 and track and secure all inmate legal papers in its settlement of that case, according to Yagman.

Hawkins remains in custody on a 25-year-to-life sentence, but Yagman has appealed to Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to ask for a shorter term because Hawkins' latest offense was a nonviolent crime.

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