Abuse of Electronic Stun Belt Results in Conviction Reversal

by | March 28, 2018

Morris v. State, (Tex. App., 8th Dist., 2018)

Terry Lee Morris was dating the mother of a 15-year-old girl. When Morris and his girlfriend broke up, Morris reached out to the daughter for sexual conversations. Morris asked the daughter to give him photos of her breasts and genitals. The girl agreed. Morris reciprocated with photos of his penis. When Morris’ 13-year-old dog washer reported that Morris tried to convince her to perform oral sex on him, a search warrant followed, and the sexually explicit photos and text messages were discovered.

During the trial, Morris was outfitted with a stun belt restraint device. He continually disobeyed the judge’s orders and complained about his attorney. The judge warned Morris that he would be shocked by the stun belt if he did not behave. After another outburst, the judge told the deputy “hit him,” indicating that Morris should receive a shock.

Morris continued to argue with the judge, asserting he had a mental illness. During these exchanges, the judge twice more told the deputy to “hit him,” resulting in additional shocks. The judge then ordered Morris removed from the courtroom. Morris did not return to the courtroom, asserting that he was afraid of more shocks.

The jury convicted Morris for soliciting the sexual performance of a child and he was sentenced to 60 years. Morris appealed. The court of appeals reversed his conviction, ruling that the trial court judge overstepped in ordering the repeated shocks. The appellate court agreed that Morris was properly removed from the court for arguing and being disruptive. However, the use of the stun belt was allowed “only in extraordinary circumstances when immediate security concerns or flight risk justify use.” (Note: As is sometimes the case in the discussion of electronic control restraints and other devices, the court’s opinion discusses electronic restraints generally in broad terms and with little factual accuracy about the device. Morris described wearing an ankle cuff, though the court discussed another type of device worn around the waist. The court cited published scientific papers that address entirely different types of devices.)

Lexipol policy prohibits the use of electronic restraints to punish or torment. The policy prescribes that the electronic restraint device should only be used in court settings to prevent self-injury, suicide, escape injury to others, property damage or an attempt to remove or destroy the device.

The court ruled that Morris’ right to be present at trial was violated because the shocks made him afraid to return to the courtroom after being expelled for his misbehavior. The appellate court reversed Morris’ conviction and ordered that he receive a new trial.

Related: Death Sentence Overturned Because Defendant Wore Stun Belt in Court

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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