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Feds Intervene in Suit, Allege “Sadistic” Stun Gun Use at Ohio Jail; Jail Settles

On November 3, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion to join a lawsuit filed by Ohio Legal Rights Service (OLRS) against the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, alleging “excessive, cruel, and inhumane” use of stun guns at the Franklin County Jail.

According to the suit, from January 2008 to May 2010, guards used Tasers at least 180 times on jail prisoners. Internal reviews found no wrongdoing by the guards, but the lawsuit claimed that stun guns were used in a “gratuitous and torturous” manner on prisoners who posed “no threat of violence or harm to themselves or others.”

A 24-year-old woman arrested for driving without a license, for example, was allegedly Tasered four times after she refused to be strip searched in front of male guards. “She was left lying naked, face down on the floor of her cell,” the suit stated. In another incident, a pregnant woman was allegedly Tasered after she was unable to remove a tongue ring because her hands were slippery. The woman had asked to use a paper towel; guards Tasered her and then let her use a paper towel.

The sheriff’s office argued in court filings that stun gun use at the jail “did not constitute excessive force,” even though some prisoners had been Tasered while they were already restrained, such as in a restraint chair.

The lawsuit noted that “In case after case, deputies tase[d] people, often in the drive stun mode to cause pain, when the person was greatly outnumbered by a team of deputies who were easily able to physically overpower and control the individual.”

Sgt. Jim Gilbert of the Fraternal Order of Police said he supported the guards’ use of Tasers at the jail. “We support the use of Tasers when dealing with combative inmates who potentially could harm themselves as well as the deputies or other staff members,” Gilbert said. “The deputies acted in accordance with their training and with the equipment provided to them by the sheriff’s office.”

The DOJ’s motion seeking to join the lawsuit, however, said stun guns were used in a “callous and sadistic manner.”

Franklin County agreed to settle the case in February 2011; according to the settlement, the county will pay $30,000 to Ohio Legal Rights Service “as costs associated with the litigation of Plaintiffs’ claim for injunctive relief.” Pursuant to an agreement with the DOJ, the county will provide training to jail staff on standards for use of force, including the use of Tasers. Tasers will not be used against prisoners who do not reasonably pose a threat to staff or others, who are not resisting with physical force, or who remain “in a limp or prone position.”

The agreement with the DOJ includes additional, detailed requirements regarding the use of Tasers at the jail.

“We commend the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for acknowledging its responsibility to uphold the constitutional rights of persons in its custody,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. Of course it took a lawsuit, and intervention by the DOJ, before that occurred. See: Shreve v. Franklin County, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ohio), Case No. 2:10-cv-00644-EAS-MRA.

Sources: Columbus Dispatch, Washington Post, Dept. of Justice press release (Feb. 4, 2011)

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Related legal case

Shreve v. Franklin County