SAN FRANCISCO — Stun belts, which discharge debilitating electric shocks, should no longer be strapped to defendants in courtrooms unless there are no less onerous alternatives, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a broad opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the court made it difficult, if not impossible, for judges to order defendants to wear the security belts while testifying during criminal trials.
The belts, designed to control troublesome defendants with an eight-second, 50,000-volt electric shock, are strapped under clothing and operated remotely by a law enforcement officer or judge. The shock knocks the wearer to the ground, causes intense writhing and shaking, and may result in uncontrolled defecation and urination as well as serious medical injury, the court said.
On a 6-1 vote, the court overturned the assault conviction of a defendant who was required to wear a belt while testifying.
"In view of the nature of a stun belt and the debilitating and humiliating consequences that such a belt can inflict," George wrote for the court, "it is reasonable to believe that many if not most persons would experience an increase in anxiety if compelled to wear such a belt while testifying at trial."
The belts are widely used in courtrooms in most states, and in the transportation of prisoners.
Amnesty International has described them as instruments of torture and called for a ban. Some courts have recently limited their use. The Indiana Supreme Court has barred them altogether.
A defense lawyer in Thursday's case praised the ruling. But the lone dissenting justice warned that it would imperil judges and jurors who must be near dangerous defendants, and a prosecutor complained that it will deprive courts of a safe, useful security device.
The ruling is close to an outright ban, said Deputy Atty. Gen. David A. Rhodes, who represented the prosecution before the court. "A very effective security tool here has just been put too far out of reach."
Appellate courts in recent years have tended to view stun belts as the security device of choice, an assumption that Thursday's ruling called questionable and unwarranted. In fact, the state high court compared the forced use of a stun belt in court to the forced administration of antipsychotic medication during a trial.
The court said stun belts have accidentally discharged at least twice in California courtrooms and the potential for such accidents "provides a strong reason to proceed with great caution in approving the use of this device."
A spokesman for the manufacturer said the belt has been worn more than 65,000 times in the United States and has never caused a death. There have been only nine accidental discharges, he said.
"We introduced them in 1993, and they just took off," said Dennis Kaufman, a consultant for Electronic Defense Technology, based in Ohio.
He said the company now makes devices that are "more user-friendly" and can be worn around the wrist or ankle. They emit the same jolt of electricity as the belts, he said.
Thursday's ruling requires judges to consider several factors before ordering use of a belt, including the potential for accidental activation, psychological effects that may impair a defendant's ability to concentrate and serious medical risks for individuals with a variety of medical conditions.
A defendant is not a candidate for a stun belt or any physical restraint unless it has been shown that there is a manifest need for such a device. Such a need would be demonstrated if it were shown that the defendant was likely to try to escape or assault someone in the court, the court ruled.
Before ordering a stun belt, the judge must review the defendant's medical history and order a medical examination to ensure that the device would not be unduly dangerous. A defendant who is asked to express a preference about a restraint should be warned about the possibility of accidental discharge, the state high court said.
Finally, the trial judge would have to determine whether the stun belt is the least restrictive way to ensure courtroom security. In deciding this, judges should consider "whether there is adequate justification for the current design of the belt" as opposed to a device that would deliver a lesser, briefer shock, the court said.
"Particularly in view of the number of accidental activations, we conclude that a trial court should not approve the use of this type of stun belt as an alternative to more traditional physical restraints if the court finds that these features render the device more onerous than necessary to satisfy the court's security needs," George wrote in People vs. Mar, S086611.
The ruling came in the case of James Allen Mar, a Santa Barbara County man who was found guilty of resisting and injuring a peace officer while being moved from a holding cell during an arrest for a parole violation.