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I have to confess. I had no idea that for at least 20 years judges in some U.S. criminal courts have quite literally been shocking defendants with 50,000 volts of electricity when the judge deems the defendant to be out of line. It happens incredibly enough in jurisdictions where the criminally accused can be required to wear battery operated remote-controlled stun cuffs or shock belts to court. At the command of the judge, a bailiff or law enforcement officer presses the stun button.

Unimaginably, this is the stuff of the totalitarian state — an exclamation point putting the banana in banana republic.

It takes but a few online clicks to quickly turn up instances where it’s happened — no aberration for those paying attention. A couple of years ago there was the one caught on tape in Maryland. In that case, though, the judge was disciplined and removed from the bench. See Ex-judge who ordered man to be hit with stun gun pays fine

 

Embracing “savage measures.”

Ironically, it was also 20 years ago that I first read and saved a quote by Cesare Beccaria. He was an 18th century economist, philosopher, and criminologist whose words immediately came to mind when I read last week about another judicially administered electric shock in the courtroom. This time the news concerned the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals throwing out the conviction of Terry Lee Morris on the grounds that the electric shocks ordered by Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher and Morris’s subsequent courtroom removal had violated his constitutional rights. Beccaria declared, “Societies seeking to moderate human conduct should not embrace savage measures.”

Hat tip to my buddy at The Legal Watchdog for emailing me about the Morris case. Also see ‘Barbarism’: Texas judge ordered electric shocks to silence man on trial. Conviction thrown out and Court Throws Out Conviction Of Texas Man Who Was Given Electrical Shocks By A Judge For Failing To “Follow The Rules”

Not having had any experience in the criminal courts, I had no idea some of the black-robed had been given this much power to physically punish the not yet convicted.

Where permitted, it’s left to the subjective discretion of the judge who decides if and when a defendant is being mouthy, difficult or otherwise ‘unmanageable.’ The justification for administering electrical shocks is “security.” But from the reports I’ve read too often the so-called threat to courtroom security falls more on the order of a garrulous defendant who has managed to annoy the judge.

Fortunately, not all jurisdictions allow the use of stun cuffs and shock belts in court. Indeed, four years after the first use of an electric security belt in Los Angeles County, in 2002 the California Supreme Court effectively banned their use during criminal trials. They were likewise barred in Indiana — but not so Texas.

And here I was previously exercised about judges with a penchant for shackling defense lawyers. That sanction pales by comparison to shock treatment. Just the same, let’s hope there’s never a time when handcuffing defense lawyers becomes an insufficient imposition and that instead further discretion is given to hit recalcitrant counsel with 50,000 volts of proper comportment.

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