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Police Tasers: excessive force or necessary tool?

A crop of legal cases across the US raise concerns over the use of electric stun guns in routine police stops.

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From isolated cases across the country, a debate is emerging over the use of electric stun guns as a "pain compliance" device by law enforcement.

At issue isn't whether police can use the weapon, known as a Taser, to protect themselves from dangerous suspects or to prevent a criminal from escaping. That is its designed purpose. Instead, the question is to what extent police may use a stun gun against someone who is not actively resisting arrest but who is passively refusing to obey a police command.

To some officers, such refusal is a form of resisting arrest and constitutes grounds to shoot 50,000 volts of electricity into that person's body in five-second bursts. When a person is tased, the central nervous system is overridden and the person experiences a seizure accompanied by intense pain.

Such tactics would be unconstitutional in a police interrogation room.

By contrast, during an arrest or roadside traffic stop, there are no clear standards for when police use of a stun gun for "pain compliance" might violate Fourth Amendment protections.

Officials at UCLA recently agreed to pay a student $220,000 to drop a lawsuit against the university in connection with a November 2006 incident in which the student was repeatedly tased after refusing a police order to leave the school library.

Last week, the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case of a handcuffed Florida motorist who was tased three times because he disobeyed a deputy sheriff's command to stand up and walk to a patrol car.

Given the proliferation of police stun guns, the issue is expected come up with increasing frequency across the country, according to civil libertarians.

A controversial alternative to guns

Developed in the 1990s, stun guns have helped reduce injuries to both police officers and suspects by offering officers a safer alternative to a firearm or a night stick.


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