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Use of Sound Cannons Held to be Excessive Force


When we think of police brutality, or the use of excessive force by police we often think of physical abuse, or the use of deadly weapons. While these types of cases are common, there are other ways that law enforcement can violate its duties to only use the force necessary to handle a given situation.

Sound Cannons

One practice that was recently challenged is the use of what are known as sound cannons. As the name implies, a sound cannon is a device capable of emitting sounds loud enough to cause pain and even permanent damage to the human ear. It is, in essence, a sonic weapon.

These sound cannons can be used legally—such as to make announcements to large, outdoor crowds—but are often used to disperse crowds or calm unruly mobs.

Use of Sound Cannons Challenged

In a ruling that is believed to be one of the first in the nation, a federal court in New York has held that the police usage of sound cannons against otherwise peaceful protesters, constitutes excessive force.

The lawsuit was brought by journalists, after a 2014 incident where officers used sound cannons against a peaceful protesting crowd. One person in the crowd noted that the sound used by police was like being “inches from a car alarm” that doesn’t shut off. For days afterward, the person experienced ear pain.

The officers argued to the Court that they were immune under qualified immunity, which is a legal theory that holds officers harmless if there is no legal guidance telling them that what they are doing is illegal. As there was no case law related to the use of these sound cannons, the officers argued, they should be held immune from suit.

The officers also argued that because only sound is used, there could be no “force” as the word is usually used in “excessive force” cases.

Court Rules Usage Excessive 

The federal court disagreed with the police department. The Court held that the use was so plainly excessive that it should have been obvious that the police actions were illegal. Further, there is nothing in the law that limits force to just physical force.

The Court also noted that many of the protesters who were subjected to or injured by the sound cannons, had not even been ordered to disburse before being subject to the cannon. As such, they were not violating police orders. The use of debilitating sound just to move protesters onto sidewalks was considered by the Court to be clearly excessive.

This was a New York case, and other courts, including Alabama Courts, may find differently. However, the case does set a precedent that would be persuasive to an Alabama Court. The case is also a reminder that excessive force cases can be brought by anybody injured by any type of force—even if you are not being arrested or directly addressed by law enforcement.

Understand your rights if you are injured by the actions of police or law enforcement. Contact the Alabama police misconduct attorneys at Lasseter Law Firm today to discuss whether you have a cause of action for damages.


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