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Don't Tase My Brain, Bro

The electrical weapons prevent people from thinking clearly, raising concerns about Miranda warnings, a new study argues.
(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When you're arrested by police and they read you your Miranda rights, you have two main options: You can keep quiet and demand a lawyer, or you can waive your rights and agree to speak to police without a lawyer present. Now, researchers argue that an increasingly common police tactic, the use of Tasers and similar devices during arrests, might invalidate many Miranda waivers—basically, because those devices temporarily fry your brain.

The Supreme Court's decision in Miranda v. Arizona established both the right to have a lawyer present during interrogations as well as the ability to waive that particular right—but to be valid, the waiver had to be made knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. Subsequently, those conditions were refined to require "full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it."

The use of Tasers during arrests might invalidate many Miranda waivers—because those devices temporarily fry your brain.

The question is, could a Taser interfere with a person's awareness enough to invalidate a Miranda waiver? It's not an entirely crazy question—after all, psychiatrists sometimes still use electric currents to treat major depression, and while the currents involved are much higher, the risks include confusion and memory problems. Yet no one's sure whether being shot by a police officer with a Taser might have similar, if less severe, effects.

Hoping to find some answers, criminologists Robert Kane and Michael White did the obvious experiment: They brought 142 people into a lab, gave them some cognitive function tests, Tased 73 of them, and then performed some more cognitive tests. The tests were relatively simple—things like recalling a list of words, repeating a list of numbers back to the researchers, or simple connect-the-dots tasks. Participants took each test an hour before being shot, and again shortly after, then an hour later, a day later, and a week later. To simulate the effects of resisting arrest, about half of the Tased group and 30 of the others spent 30 seconds pummeling a punching bag.

Getting shot with a Taser, Kane and White found, didn't hurt one's ability to think for perhaps an hour after, with one extremely important exception: Right after being shot with a Taser, participants could remember only about 85 percent as many words as they could on the pre-test. Participants also reported feeling more confused, anxious, and overwhelmed right after being Tased, though other aspects of their cognitive abilities were not affected. Word recall and the other factors mostly recovered after an hour and, with the exception of anxiety, fully recovered after a day.

Still, Kane and White point out, you don't get Miranda warnings an hour or a day after being arrested—at least, you're not supposed to—suggesting the use of Tasers could lead to invalid Miranda waivers. Worse, to the extent that Tasers inhibit arrestees' ability to understand the consequences of waiving their rights, it could also make them susceptible to suggestibility, raising the unnerving possibility that even innocent people could make incriminating statements to police, Kane and White write.


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