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Finding that stun belts have troublesome physical and psychological effects, the California Supreme Court on Thursday all but banned their use in state courtrooms. Emphasizing concerns about health and prejudice to defendants, the justices set a high bar for the use of stun belts in California, challenging other courts’ assumption that the concealed belts are constitutionally preferable to more traditional restraints of chains and irons. “In light of the nature of the device and its effect upon the wearer when activated, requiring an unwilling defendant to wear a stun belt during trial may have significant psychological consequences that may impair a defendant’s ability to assist his or her counsel, and adversely affect his or her demeanor in the presence of the jury,” Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the 6-1 majority. The court overturned the conviction of James Allen Mar, who was found guilty in 1996 of resisting arrest. Mar had objected to the court’s order that he wear a stun belt, saying it made him extremely nervous. Although the court stopped short of outlawing the belts altogether, it said the current design is too dangerous to be used without first checking into a defendant’s medical background. Furthermore, the court said judges should warn defendants about the risk of accidental activation, and “should give considerable weight to the defendant’s perspective” in deciding whether an alternative method should be used if restraint is deemed necessary. Justice Janice Rogers Brown was the lone dissenter, arguing that the majority decided issues and cited articles that were not before the court, and should have awaited action by state lawmakers. “Instead, the majority, rushing to judgment after conducting an embarrassing Google.com search for information outside the record, has tied the hands of the Legislature, to the likely peril of judges, bailiffs, and ordinary citizens called upon to do their civic duty,” Brown wrote. The majority seemed particularly concerned about the unreliability of the belts, citing one article — now several years old — that said one-quarter of the total discharges were accidental. “In light of the substantial physical harm that may result when the device is activated, any significant doubt as to the reliability of the stun belt renders even more suspect the general assumption that a stun belt is a less onerous or restrictive alternative to traditional security measures,” George wrote in People v. Mar, 02 C.D.O.S. 7674. Stun belts have come into increasing use in courts across the country and have sparked widespread debate. The belts, triggered by remote control, deliver an eight-second jolt of 50,000 volts. Proponents argue that when measured against traditional alternatives, they are more effective controlling unruly behavior and safer, since a belt can be activated up to 300 feet from the prisoner. Amnesty International and other groups have expressed concerns. In one instance, a Los Angeles County judge ordered a defendant shocked after he’d repeatedly interrupted her. Mar’s attorney, San Francisco solo Carlo Andreani, praised Thursday’s ruling. “The California Supreme Court’s decision will ensure that California courtrooms will be safer and more dignified forums for the administration of justice,” Andreani said. Deputy Attorney General David Rhodes, who argued the case for the state, said the opinion makes it more difficult for judges to use the belts. “I think clearly it’s going to be more restrictive and make it more difficult to use” the stun belts, Rhodes said. When asked if the bar the Supreme Court established was insurmountable, Rhodes said: “I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s a very high bar. I was surprised.” George wrote that the belts could have an intimidating psychological effect on the wearer, which would interfere with his ability to defend himself. “Even when the jury is not aware that the defendant has been compelled to wear a stun belt, the presence of the stun belt may preoccupy a defendant’s thoughts, make it more difficult for the defendant to focus his or her entire attention on the substance of the court proceedings, and affect his or her demeanor before the jury — especially while on the witness stand,” George wrote. Mar was fitted for his stun belt on the second day of his trial — the day he was to testify. The first day was uneventful. Mar asked the judge to remove it because it made him extremely nervous and therefore difficult to explain his case. The judge refused, telling Mar it was in his “best interest” that no outbursts occur in front of the jury. Mar had a history of combative behavior. In her dissent, Brown said Mar’s conviction should have been upheld because no prejudice was shown. “The question in this case was not whether stun belts pose serious medical risks … nor was it whether the current design of the stun belt could be improved upon. There is absolutely no evidence in the record bearing on these questions.” As for the sources cited by George, she wrote, “A high school student who turned in a research paper with a bibliography like that would be unlikely to get high marks.” Mar was convicted and sentenced under California’s Three Strikes law to 26 years to life in prison. The stun belt was never activated.

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