In New York, Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza has issued a controversial ruling that police can taser a suspect who refuses to voluntarily submit a DNA sample. In this case, Ryan S. Smith sought to suppress DNA evidence that linked him to two crimes because of the use of the force against him. When told of a court order to obtain a second sample for DNA testing, Smith reportedly stated “You are gonna have to Taser me if you want my DNA.” That apparently sounded like a pretty good idea to the officers in the room.
Ryan is charged with first-degree robbery, burglary, second-degree kidnapping and other crimes stemming from a pair of incidents in 2006. This includes a Christmas Eve holdup of a gas station and a home invasion where he alleged tied up children with duct tape. Police were trying to match DNA evidence from a soda can and a glove at these crime scenes. This is the second such sample that the police sought due to mishandling of the first sample.
Last fall, Smith refused to comply with an order to give a sample. He was stunned and then police took a swab from inside his mouth. What is most interesting is that The Buffalo News reported that officers were told to “use any means necessary” to collect the sample. It is a good thing that Ryan did not say anything about getting a sample “over my dead body.” The reference by Buffalo News conflicts with the account of one supervisor who says that he gave them authority to use minimal force.
Thomson, McDonell, Crime Scene Unit Officer Jason G. Sykes and Detective James C. Galie Jr. testified on their actions. However, Officer Ryan G. Warme was not available — he is in jail accused by federal authorities of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, wire fraud and other counts.
I do agree with the officers that trying to pry open the inmates mouth presents a risk to them and could actually cause more injury to the subject. However, the usual response to such a refusal is to hold the individual in contempt. This ruling says that, without any threat to their safety, police can use physical force to force submission. Could police club a prisoner until her submitted?
As discussed in this prior column, sniper John Allen Muhammad was subjected to the same punishment for failing to yield to demands for a sample. Muhammad objected to a medical test that had not been ordered by the court or discussed with his attorney. In response to his refusal to cooperate, the guards activated a stun belt that sent a powerful electrical charge through his body.
The use of force as punishment can create a dangerous slippery slope. Under this theory, inmates could be equipped with stun belts and subjected to shock punishment for a failure to yield to such demands. Officers can clearly use physical force to hold down an inmate while, for example, blood is being withdrawn. They can taser the inmate if he turns violent. However, this ruling suggests that you can taser in response to a refusal to change attitudes and force compliance.