Ending a long-running legal battle, the city of Seattle has agreed to pay $45,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who was seven months pregnant when three Seattle police officers repeatedly jolted her with a Taser during a 2004 traffic stop.
The case involving Malaika Brooks raised questions about Seattle police tactics, years before federal scrutiny led to a landmark 2012 settlement in which the city agreed to adopt broad reforms to curtail the use of excessive force in the Police Department.
While the monetary payment was modest, Seattle police policy was changed after the incident, state law was amended and the case helped establish a new court standard on the use of Tasers.
Over the years, the case wound its way through federal courts as judges sought to determine if Brooks’ refusal to sign a traffic ticket and resist arrest justified the administration of three 50,000-volt tasings in less than a minute.
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“After almost eight years of litigation, we are pleased to have this matter resolved,” City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement Wednesday. “We stood behind our officers throughout the years that this dispute has been pending and that does not change with this settlement.”
The city admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the officers, who had stopped Brooks for allegedly speeding in a school zone.
As of Monday, the city’s tab for defending the officers was $546,615.
Brooks’ attorney, Eric Zubel, said Wednesday that his client agreed to the settlement because she wants to get on with her life.
“It’s her belief that she was brutally assaulted and battered by the Seattle police in the use of the Taser,” Zubel said.
Brooks filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in 2006 against the city and three officers, who directly applied the Taser in the so-called “drive-stun” mode rather than firing darts.
Federal claims were dismissed in 2011 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which found Brooks’ suit couldn’t proceed despite evidence of unconstitutional use of force because the law governing use of Tasers was unclear in 2004.
But the ruling allowed Brooks to pursue assault claims against the officers under state law.
The officers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the support of two large police organizations. The city opposed that request, citing the “sky is falling” interpretation of the officers.
The Supreme Court let stand the appellate ruling in 2012.
Trial on Brooks’ state claim was set to begin in November in King County Superior Court.
Brooks opted to settle after the trial judge dismissed one of the officers — a sergeant — from the case, leaving the two other officers to argue they were following orders, Zubel said.
At that point, Zubel said, the city had the “head cut off the monster” and there was “not much of a case left.”
The Police Department now restricts the use of Tasers on pregnant women, limiting it to exceptional circumstances. In addition, the state Legislature subsequently amended state law to provide that individuals who refuse to sign citations are no longer subject to arrest.
Moreover, the 9th Circuit ruling made clear that police could be held liable for the inappropriate use of Tasers.
“We feel we did something good,” Zubel said.
Brooks, whose baby was born healthy, now works as a driving instructor, Zubel said.
Brooks was driving her son to Seattle’s African American Academy and was stopped while going 32 mph in a school zone. She insisted it was the car in front of her that was speeding and refused to sign the ticket because she thought she’d be admitting guilt, according to court documents.
Rather than give her the ticket and let her leave, the officers decided to arrest her. One reached in, turned off her car and dropped the keys on the floor. Brooks, according to police reports, stiffened her arms against the steering wheel, told the officers she was pregnant and refused to get out, even after they threatened to stun her.
The officers — Sgt. Steven Daman, Juan Ornelas and Donald Jones — first attempted a manual “pain compliance” hold to force her from the car. When that didn’t work, the officers applied a Taser in the painful touch-stun mode three times in rapid succession on her thigh, shoulder and neck.
The officers then pulled her out of the car and handcuffed her face down in the street, according to the reports and her lawsuit.
While the majority opinion in the 9th Circuit case noted Brooks bears some responsibility for the escalation of the incident, the court considered two “overwhelmingly salient” factors that weighed in her favor: She had told the officers she was within 60 days of delivering her baby, and that after learning of this, the officers took time to discuss how they should proceed and even where they should apply the Taser.
The court also noted how many times Brooks was quickly tased.
“Three tasings in such rapid succession provided no time for Brooks to recover from the extreme pain she experienced, gather herself and reconsider her refusal to comply,” the court said.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story, which contains information from Times archives. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich