Judge’s Use of Stun Belt to Enforce Decorum Dooms Conviction

A Texas trial judge’s use of an electric stun belt to punish a defendant for a breach of court decorum requires reversal of the defendant’s conviction, the Texas Court of Appeals held Feb. 28.

Stun belts may be activated “only in extraordinary circumstances when immediate security concerns or flight risk justify use,” the court said in an opinion by Judge Yvonne T. Rodriguez.

Trial Judge George William Gallagher abused his discretion, exceeded his authority, and violated Terry Lee Morris’s constitutional rights by ordering a bailiff to shock him three times, the court said.

“We must speak out against it, lest we allow practices like these to affront the very dignity of the proceedings we seek to protect and lead our courts to drift from justice into barbarism,” the court said.

Gallagher ordered Morris shocked during a heated exchange with him outside the presence of the jury. Morris complained that he wanted to represent himself, that he wanted the judge to recuse himself, and asserted that he had a history of mental illness.

Gallagher rightfully ordered Morris removed from the court for arguing, but his right to be present at trial was violated because the unjustified shocks made him afraid to return for the remainder of his trial and sentencing, the appellate court said.

The court reversed Morris’s conviction for soliciting the sexual performance of a child.

The case is Morris v. State , Tex. App., 8th Dist., 08-16-00153-CR, 2/28/18