Use of stun guns to commit crimes more prevalent

Local man was seen discarding one after chase

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Brent Woodall of Salmon Creek tossed a black TASER-like device to the ground before surrendering to Portland police June 20 after an alleged crime spree that spanned Washington and Oregon, according to live KATU footage of the chase.

Woodall cast off the device as a suspect would a gun to show the suspect wasn't a threat to the officer.

Marketed to the public as a form of self-defense against crimes, stun guns, such as Tasers, have gained popularity among robbers who use the devices to intimidate victims into cooperation.

"It's becoming more and more common as an item," said John Laws, a Vancouver police crime analyst. "Back in the old days when pepper spray was new, we had a bunch of pepper spray armed robberies."

"I call it 'the crime du jour,'" said Laws, who

has been in law enforcement for nearly 30 years.

Woodall allegedly wrote in a robbery note June 20 to a bank teller at the Hazel Dell branch of Riverview Savings Bank that he had a Taser and a gun, but he never displayed it, said Clark County sheriff's Detective Sgt. Kevin Allais. He showed the Taser or Taser-like device to the victim of a carjacking on Vancouver's East 15th Street, Allais said.

In another case, Vancouver police responded to an armed robbery involving a Taser on June 19 at the Chevron at 9414 N.E. Vancouver Mall Drive, near the intersection of Northeast 94th Avenue, close to Westfield Vancouver mall. Police found a bag with a Taser inside later that day but never located the suspect, said Vancouver police spokesperson Kim Kapp.

Stun guns still aren't as trendy as airguns, Laws said. Airguns shoot paint balls or BBs and are identical to real guns except airguns have a red tip on the muzzle, per federal law.

Nonetheless, stun guns have made a notable appearance on the national crime scene.

Stun gun-armed robberies have occurred everywhere from Bellingham to Rockville, Md., in the past couple of years, according to news reports.

On July 6, 2010, Chad William Douglas shot a Beaverton, Ore., gas station manager in the back with a stun gun and stole a bag of money the manager was about to deposit at a Wells Fargo Bank inside a Safeway store in Beaverton, according to The Oregonian.

In Olympia, a suspect used a stun gun Feb. 17 to shock and rob a victim using an ATM at a Bank of America, according to The Olympian.

A few advantages

Stun guns have a few advantages for would-be criminals.

Compared with a gun, a stun gun can reduce the risk of killing someone during a robbery and adding murder to the list of potential charges.

Stun guns also may be a safer choice for the criminal than an airgun.

Unlike an airgun, stun guns usually are easy to recognize, Laws said.

"They're block-like and square, so you can identify them as a Taser," Laws said.

That may reduce the chance of being shot by law enforcement in a high-stress situation.

If police mistake a non-deadly device such as an airgun for a deadly weapon during a pursuit or standoff, the suspect may be in danger of being shot.

For example, Robert L. Henderson III, 21, of Fort Bragg, N.C., was shot in December by Hopewell, Va. sheriff's deputies after he pointed a Crosman BB airgun that resembled a pistol at a deputy, according to Virginia State Police, which investigated the case.

Stun guns are readily available, said Clark County sheriff's Sgt. Duncan Hoss.

"They're cheap compared to a traditional firearm," Hoss said. "There is a lot of fear generated about stun guns. They do cause pain, momentary pain, but still pain. That instills fear in people."

State laws vary

Washington law allows both police officers and the public to purchase stun guns. Washington, D.C., Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island prohibit any type of stun device to be sold to the public, said Steven Tuttle, a Taser spokesman.

Restrictions on the use of stun guns are limited. Revised Code of Washington 9A.36.031(h) makes assaulting a peace officer with a projectile stun gun a Class C felony charge of assault in the third degree. The law only addresses projectile stun guns, however. Some stun guns don't have projectiles; they strike on contact. RCW 9.41.280 (f) makes it illegal to carry a weapon or device intended to injure a person with electric shock, charge or impulse.

Another advantage of a stun gun for criminals is that, unlike firearms, there are no specific sentencing enhancements that would result in extra time for carrying a stun gun, Hoss said.

However, an argument could be made that a stun gun is a deadly weapon if used by an untrained professional, improperly, or against a vulnerable victim, said Camara Banfield, Clark County senior deputy prosecutor.

Taser, which is a brand name of just one kind of stun device on the market, has added features on its publicly available Tasers that help trace it back to its owner after it's used, Tuttle said. The Tasers leave behind Anti-Felon Identification confetti when used, he said. When a Taser C2 is purchased, the buyer has to go through background check and have no criminal history in order to activate the device, he said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.