Malaika Brooks, the pregnant woman Tasered by Seattle police during a 2004 traffic stop, finally won her battle after seven years but may have lost the war, at least in federal court.
A U.S. appeals court in San Francisco yesterday ruled that the Seattle woman was the victim of excessive force when Seattle police Tasered the then-seven-months-pregnant Brooks with a stun gun three times. But the court also said the three officers involved cannot be sued by Brooks in U.S. court. They have qualified immunity from any legal action because laws regarding stun-gun use were unclear at the time of the incident."It's a terrible ruling," says Brooks' Seattle attorney Eric Zubel. He still hadn't been able to reach Brooks late yesterday to ask whether she wanted to continue the lawsuit, but there's a chance she could. "At least the appeals court agreed the police were clearly out of line by Tazing her," Zubel says. "We could still pursue a civil assault-and-battery claim in the state courts if she so chooses."
The case was detailed in a Seattle Weekly cover story earlier this year. Brooks was driving her 12-year-old son Jahrod to the African American Academy on Beacon Hill when an officer pulled her over for doing 32 in a 20-mph school zone.
Brooks, then 34, denied the violation and refused to sign the traffic citation, mistakenly thinking it was an admission of guilt. The officer threatened to arrest her for failing to sign the ticket. Brooks again refused but said she'd "accept" the ticket.
Two other officers arrived and Brooks was asked to step from the car (her son had already gone on to school). She refused, and an officer displayed a Taser stun gun and asked if she knew what it could do to her. Brooks told the officers she was pregnant.
"How pregnant?" one asked. Her baby was due in two months, she said. She again refused to step out.
After a discussion among the officers, one opened the driver's door, reached in and grabbed Brooks by the left arm as another cop put the device to Brooks' thigh in touch-stun mode and shocked her with 50,000 volts. She began honking her horn, screaming for help as she resisted.
She was given another shock on the arm, and she stopped blowing the horn. She was shocked a third time in the neck, and Brooks then fell over on the car seat, unable to move. She was pulled out of the car and held face-down on the street while being handcuffed. After an examination by fire-department medics, she was jailed for resisting arrest. The charges ultimately were dismissed.
Brooks, who two months later gave birth to a healthy baby girl, has been in court since, contending that police used excessive force. Her case worked its way up to a federal appeals panel last year, where two of three judges ruled that the police had acted within the law and used proper force.
But after another appeal, Brooks' attorney Zubel was allowed to appear before the full 11-member court at a session in Pasadena, Calif., in December to re-argue the issue, resulting in yesterday's ruling.
In concluding that Seattle police unnecessarily Tazered Brooks, the court, writes Judge Richard A. Paez, recognizes "the importance of having people sign their traffic citations when required to do so by state law. However, we have no difficulty deciding that failing to sign a traffic citation and driving 32 miles per hour in a 20-mile-per-hour zone are not serious offenses."
Officers also were at no risk from the the pregnant driver, Paez adds. "At no time did Brooks verbally threaten the officers. She gave no indication of being armed and, behind the wheel of her car, she was not physically threatening....A reasonable fact-finder could conclude, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Brooks, that the officers' use of force was unreasonable and therefore constitutionally excessive."
However, because case law on the use of lasers in 2004 "was not sufficiently clear at
the time of the incident to render the alleged violation clearly established," the court concluded, "the defendant officers are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity."
The case has cost city taxpayers at least $345,000 in legal fees and left Brooks with weighty legal costs and several Taser scars. "If the police had done their job right," says Zubel, "this never would have happened."