Not Quite Judge Dredd


On-the-Spot Justice: It's Purely Logical

A man was driving down a quiet country lane when out into the road strayed a rooster.
Whack!  The rooster disappeared under the car in a cloud of feathers.
Shaken, the man pulled over at the farmhouse and rang the doorbell.
A farmer appeared.  The man somewhat nervously said,
"I think I killed your rooster, please allow me to replace him.
"Suit yourself," the farmer replied, "the hens are round the back.


London - It is not quite Judge Dredd, the comic-book hero who dispensed rapid (and often nasty) justice from his motorbike.  More like Judge RAM: an intelligent computer program that sorts out roadside disputes.

The device, which is operating in Brazil, uses an artificial intelligence computer program called Electronic Judge, and is carried in a laptop computer to the scene of an accident or dispute in a legal "rapid-response unit" with a judge and clerk, accompanied by police.  It can then take account of witness reports and forensic evidence to recommend a verdict.  It can also issue on-the-spot fines, order damages to be paid and even suggest jail sentences.

The Electronic Judge is presented with multiple-choice questions such as "Did the driver stop at the red light?" or "Had the driver been drinking alcohol above the acceptable limit of the law?"

Pedro Valls Feu Rosa, a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Espirito Santo state, who developed the program, said that the decision-making process in such simple cases required no difficult interpretation of the law; "If we are concerned with nothing more than pure logic, then why not give the task to a computer?"

The Electronic Judge provides a printout of its reasoning, and if the human judge disagrees, it can be overruled.

Most people were happy to accept the decisions, said Feu Rosa.  But he admitted that some did not realise they were being judged by a computer.  The device is part of a scheme called Justice on Wheels, intended to ease the load on Brazil's overburdened courts by dealing at once with straight-forward cases.  Three judges are testing it in Espirito Santo, reports New Scientist magazine.

Feu Rosa noted that there were advantages to settling a case on location: the human judge could see if witnesses had a clear view of an accident and perhaps check a vehicle's tyre marks, saving months of wrangling in court. - Independent

Source: Weekend Herald 29-30 April 2000

What follows is a different kind of on-the-spot justice - less logical and more emotional.

Man Zapped with 50,000 Volts for Talking

Los Angeles - All he did was talk too much, but that was enough for a judge in Los Angeles to order a defendant zapped with a 50,000-volt jolt of electricity.  The Los Angeles Times said it was the first activation ever in Los Angeles of a prisoner's electronic security belt.

Ronald Hawkins, defending himself at a sentencing hearing, continually interrupted municipal judge Joan Comparet-Cassani and so she ordered the bailiff to use his remote control to administer an 8-second electric shock, the paper said.  People in the courtroom said Hawkins grimaced and stiffened as the electricity surged through his body.  He was wearing the security belt, which is known as a REACT belt, because he had acted violently while in jail on two previous occasions.

Deputy Public Defender Jacques Cain, who was present in the court waiting to represent another defendant when the incident occurred last week, said he was shocked at the use of the belt for such a trivial reason.  "If the guy was fighting with the bailiffs, I can understand using the belt to restrain him, but that was absolutely not the case.  To physically punish a defendant for speaking out of turn seems outrageous," he told the Times.

Comparet_Cassani was not available for comment.  She told the newspaper that a code of judicial ethics prevented her from discussing the case while it was still pending.  The hearing was held over three weeks after Hawkins said he needed more time to recover from the jolt.

According to court transcripts the judge warned Hawkins she would have him zapped.  "You are wearing a very bad instrument, and if you want to feel it, you can, but stop interrupting me," she said.  "You are going to electrocute me for talking?" Hawkins asked.  "No sir, but they will zap you if you keep doing it," the judge replied.  After Hawkins had interrupted Comparet-Cassani twice more, the judge told him: "One more time, one more time, go ahead."

"That is unconstitutional," Hawkins replied before the judge ordered he receive the full 50,000-volt force of the law.  Hawkins was convicted of petty theft, a misdemeanor, but as he had two previous felony convictions he was eligible to be sentenced to a much longer jail time under California's "three strikes" law.

Source: Reuters Thursday 9 July 1998

Thief Who Sued over LA Court's Use of Electric Stun Belt Dies

Los Angeles - Ronnie Hawkins, a convicted thief who sued the county after he was jolted with an electric stun belt in court, has died only hours before paperwork was completed to free him from prison, his lawyer said Friday.  Hawkins, 52, was serving 25 years to life when he died at a state prison in Vacaville on Thursday, attorney Stephen Yagman said.

Hawkins, who had AIDS, was waiting to be released after a federal judge ruled his 1998 "three-strikes" sentence for stealing $250 worth of painkillers was too harsh.  The writ to release him was completed three hours after Hawkins died, Yagman said.

Hawkins was acting as his own attorney during a 1998 sentencing hearing when he was ordered shocked by a 50,000-volt, low-amperage stun belt after interrupting Long Beach Superior Court Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani.  Hawkins sued the county, claiming the use of the belt violated his right to a fair trial by effectively silencing him.  Last October, Hawkins agreed to settle his lawsuit over the stun belt incident for $275,000.

The county has revised its policy and now allows the stun belt to be used on defendants only when there is a credible risk of danger to others or of escape.

Source: The Sacramento Bee "Life Captured Daily" Friday 20 September 2002 from the Associated Press

A judge stunned a man for talking who has AIDS, who is before her for stealing painkillers and who is acting as his own attorney?  Was the judge's salary docked to cover the amount of the settlement?  No?  Oh.  Who paid, then?  Taxpayers?

Who got the money?  Did Hawkins have a will?  A family?  Who actually "won" and "lost" in the long term?  Hawkins lost (even though he technically won) by spending his remaining life in prison.  If he received the money (which I doubt), he had no real opportunity to do anything with it other than possibly bequeath it - or pay down his lawyer bills.  Taxpayers lost double - by having to support Hawkins in prison and by being taxed for the funds to settle his claim.  The prison system gained by getting another prisoner and the person(s) who end up with the money benefitted.  That "person" could be another branch of the US government or his lawyer.  But in that case, either of them would donate the money to prison charities, I feel sure...

Sweeping Stun Guns to Target Crowds

by David Hambling

Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe.  At present, commercial stun guns target one person at a time, and work only at close quarters.  The new breed of non-lethal weapons can be used on many people at once and operate over far greater distances.  But human rights groups are appalled by the fact that no independent safety tests have been carried out, and by their potential for indiscriminate use.

The weapons are designed to address the perceived shortcomings of the Taser, the electric-shock gun already used by 4000 police departments in the US and undergoing trials with some police forces in the UK.  It hits the victim with two darts that trail current-carrying wires, which limit its range to a maximum of seven metres (see graphic).  As a single shot, short-range weapon, the Taser is of little use in crowd control.  And Tasers have no effect on vehicles.  But these limitations are beginning to be overcome.  Engineers working for the US Department of Defense's research division, DARPA, and defence companies in Europe have been working out how to create an electrically conductive path between a gun and a target without using wires.

A weapon under development by Rheinmetall, based in Dorf, Germany, creates a conducting channel by using a small explosive charge to squirt a stream of tiny conductive fibres through the air at the victim.  Meanwhile, Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems (XADS), based in Anderson, Indiana, will be one of the first companies to market another type of wireless weapon.  Instead of using fibres, the $9000 Close Quarters Shock Rifle projects an ionised gas, or plasma, towards the target, producing a conducting channel.  It will also interfere with electronic ignition systems and stop vehicles.  "We will be able to fire a stream of electricity like water out of a hose at one or many targets in a single sweep," claims XADS president Peter Bitar.

The gun has been designed for the US Marine Corps to use for crowd control and security purposes and is due out in 2005.  It is based on early, unwieldy technology and has a range of only three metres, but an operator can debilitate multiple targets by sweeping it across them for "as long as there is an input power source," says Bitar.  XADS is also planning a more advanced weapon which it hopes will have a range of 100 metres or more. Instead of firing ionised gas, it will probably use a powerful laser to ionise the air itself.  The idea has been around for decades, says LaVerne Schlie, a laser expert at the US Air Force Research Lab in Kirtland, New Mexico.  It has only become practical with advances in high-power solid-state lasers.

"Before, it took a laser about the size of two trucks," says Schlie.  "Now we can do it with something that fits on a tabletop."

The laser pulse must be very intense, but can be brief.  So the makers of the weapons plan to use a UV laser to fire a 5-joule pulse lasting just 0.4 picoseconds - equating to a momentary power of more than 10 million megawatts.  This intense pulse - which is said not to harm the eyes - ionises the air, producing long, thread-like filaments of glowing plasma that can be sustained by repeating the pulse every few milliseconds.  This plasma channel is then used to deliver a shock to the victims similar to a Taser's 50,000-volt, 26-watt shock.

HSV Technologies of San Diego, California is also working on stun and vehicle-stopping shock weapons with ranges of over 100 metres.  And another company, Ionatron of Tuscon, Arizona, is due to supply a prototype wireless vehicle-mounted weapon to the US Department of Defense by the end of 2004.

But the advent of wireless stun weapons has horrified human rights groups.  Robin Coupland of the Red Cross says they risk becoming a new instrument of torture.  And Brian Wood of Amnesty International says the long-range stun guns could "inflict pain and other suffering on innocent bystanders".  And there are safety concerns.  Of the 30,000 times US police officers have fired Tasers, in 40 instances people stunned by them later died.  The deaths have been attributed to factors such as overdoses of drugs and alcohol, or fighting with officers, rather than the electric shock.

In a statement, Taser International chief Rick Smith said: "In every single case the medical examiner has attributed the direct cause of death to causes other than the Taser."  Amnesty is not convinced, however, and wants an independent study of the effects of all existing and emerging electric-shock weapons.

Source: 16 June 2004

Now for some on-the-spot injustice:

Rides in Police Vans Injure Suspects

Philadelphia - At least 20 suspects riding in the back of police vans in recent years suffered injuries ranging from a severed spinal cord to a broken tailbone, reflecting a long-standing tradition of officers using erratic driving to deal with apparently difficult suspects, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Officers call the long-standing ritual a "nickel ride," a term dating to the days when amusement-park rides cost 5 cents.  Rookie officers learn about it as "part of your street training," said Norman A Carter Jr, a retired Philadelphia police corporal.

Although the city has paid more than $2.3 million to settle lawsuits filed by the arrestees, none of the officers has been disciplined for intentionally subjecting passengers to wild rides, the newspaper reported in early Sunday editions.  The city has also been slow to deploy potentially safer vehicles, the paper said.  Two people were permanently paralysed in city police vans.  Most of the 20 victims had clean records and were arrested on minor charges, such as talking back or arguing with police.

"That wagon changed a lot," said Gino Thompson, a father of 11 paralysed from the waist down.  "I can't play football with my kids.  I can't play basketball.  I was a gymnast, a singer, a dancer.  I did it a1l."

Thompson, 40, was arrested in 1994 after a drunken argument with a girlfriend.  He now relies on a wheelchair.  The city paid $600,000 to settle his lawsuit.  The newspaper found 19 similar cases, but reported that they probably represent a fraction of all wagon injuries.

Current and former officers say the erratic driving, in which the officer makes sharp turns, accelerates quickly or slams the brakes, is often falsely attributed to traffic, bad roads or a sudden stop made to avoid an animal.

James B Jordan, a lawyer who worked as the police department's in-house corruption monitor from 1996 through 1999, said officers use the "nickel ride" to assert control.  "What better way to show who's in control than stopping at a light and slamming on the brakes, knowing that they're going to go flying?" Jordan asked.  "And maybe the prisoner was yelling, and maybe this will shut him up."

Police Commissioner John F Timoney said he was not aware that officers would intentionally injure prisoners during transport.  "Such behaviour - if it does exist - certainly isn't condoned by myself or anybody else in this department," Timoney said.  "We are making efforts, as much as humanly possible, to reduce the number of incidents where prisoners get hurt in the back of these vans," he said.

Chief Inspector Frank M Pryor, head of the police department's patrol operations, said "nobody did anything about" the rough rides 30 years ago, but insists times have changed.  "If we see that happen, we're on it now," Pryor said.

Eleven of the 20 cases found by the newspaper, however, were never investigated by the department's Internal Affairs division.  Of the other nine incidents, the department suspended one officer for three days for infractions that occurred after the wagon ride, not for the injury itself.  The other eight resulted in no sanctions.

Some cities have phased out wagons or added safety restraints and padding, but only 10 of Philadelphia's 86 wagons have these safety features.  The other vehicles which transport tens of thousands of suspects per year, have a compartment made of fiberglass and plastic with narrow benches.

Calvin Saunders was transported in such a van in 1997 when he was arrested for driving a stolen car.  During the ride, he was propelled from his seat and rammed his head against a wall.  Now a quadriplegic, Saunders cannot feed, bathe or dress himself.  The city paid him a $1.2 million settlement to help cover his lifetime medical care.

Source: The Sunday Star-Ledger (Morris County NJ edition) 3 June 2001 from the Associated Press

The fact that Police Commissioner Timoney refuses to acknowledge that such a practice exists despite the fact that a retired police corporal and the department's in-house corruption monitor (among others) publicly said it did - not to mention the evidence of so many injured riders - doesn't bode well for seeing the problem fixed anytime soon.  What does "Philadelphia" mean again?  The "city of brotherly love", you say?

See also:

bulletDeath Penalty and Race: Partners in Injustice (earlier in this section) - Death penalty statistics shine an ugly spotlight on racial justice in the City of Brotherly Love.  Philadelphia's death row of 135 men and women is larger than that of 42 states - 90% of Philadelphia's death row are racial or ethnic minorities.  During one recent period in the mid 1990s, 40 of 41 defendants sent to death row by Philadelphia juries (97.6%) were black or Latino...

Stun Guns, Lasers for Prisons?

by Ruth Berry

The public is being asked if stun guns, electric collars and disorienting laser beams should be used on prison inmates in the future.  The question is included in a public discussion document on the development of new corrections laws, released yesterday.  It says that while the use of many weapons are now illegal, some new weapons may prove more humane than the type of restraints now used.

Corrections Minister Matt Robson said corrections laws had been amended many times.  The Penal Institutions Act was 50 years old.  "The result is a patchwork that is difficult to operate, out of step with the times and which may not be in tune with public opinion."

The new law would complement other changes around sentencing and plans to reduce offending and he wanted a Bill introduced early next year.  The law had to reflect the primacy of public safety and the need to run prisons in a way that ensured they were humane and aimed to rehabilitate people in a way that reduced offending.  Questions around restraint of inmates needed clarification.

The discussion document said: "Inmates are in a very vulnerable position... being shut away from the scrutiny of the general community and dependent on those people charged with their care."

Under existing law prison officers are prohibited from using tear gas, guns or temporarily disabling substances such as pepper spray.  Restraints around waists and ankles are also illegal.  A number of new restraints such as the stun guns, electric collars and disorienting laser beams are now or soon will be on the market and the new law needed to account for these technological developments.

"Some of these are clearly inhumane and should never be used, but other new restraints and weapons may in fact provide for more humane restraints than those currently used."

The document also seeks public views, including those of victims, on increasing day work release for inmates.  It also asks:

bulletWhether officers should have more powers to strip-search or turn away visitors suspected of carrying drugs.
bulletWhether tougher penalties should be imposed on non-inmates (including prison staff) who commit offences while in prison, and whether prison disciplinary practices should be changed.

Ruth Berry is a political reporter.

Source: The Evening Post Thursday 3 May 2001

A public discussion about matters of this sort is healthy.  (This is one of the reasons why I like New Zealand so much.)

For articles on white collar and petty crimes, injustice, capital punishment, race, executioners, freedom of the press, cheating, private prisons, punishment, retribution, prison labour, appeals, instant justice, electronic tags, lepers and second chances click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Prisons section.

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