City courts try out stun belts

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- City courts will test stun belts during trials of some defendants who are perceived to be a danger or flight risk, officials said.

The belt, which is mostly or fully hidden, can incapacitate a person for up to eight seconds with the push of a button.

Presiding Judge John Riley said that if the stun belts are found to be reliable and funds are located to buy them, the belts could one day potentially be used for anyone transported from jail or prison to the courthouse.

The move to try out the stun belts comes after an inmate briefly escaped the St. Louis Civil Courts building on June 17. The prisoner was handcuffed during his sentencing hearing and escaped after asking to use the bathroom.

Advocates of the stun belts said they can provide an added measure of security and aren't easy to spot. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have ruled that visibly shackling criminal defendants during a trial is inherently prejudicial and should not be allowed except in special circumstances.

Critics said the belts can misfire or be misused to hurt inmates. Some also wondered if a defendant could fully participate in his defense if he is constantly worried about being shocked.

Denise Lieberman, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Tuesday that the dangers of stun belts "are often underestimated, and they're perceived to be a more minimal use of force than they actually are."

Lieberman said the law provides that reasonable force, not excessive force, can be used to restrain someone.

"Reasonableness is a case-by-case determination," she said. "You'd have to have somebody that was unable to be restrained otherwise."

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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