Maui officer's use of Taser on woman not excessive, court rules
WAILUKU — Reversing a lower court’s ruling, a federal appeals court said a woman’s constitutional rights weren't violated when a Taser was used on her after Maui police officers entered her home and arrested her and her husband.
In an opinion for publication filed Jan. 12, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that the force used against Jayzel Mattos was “reasonable,” viewing the facts in the light most favorable to her and her husband, Troy Mattos.
The appeals court justices “found it wasn't excessive force,” said Maui Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey. “That's important to us because it's the first decision in our state on this particular level of force. Under similar circumstances, this use of force would not be unconstitutional.”
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz, representing the Mattoses, said that he would ask the entire court to review the opinion issued by a three-judge panel of the court.
“In my view, the decision in our case was patently dishonest and lacks integrity,” Seitz said. “We're going to ask the full court to review and overrule what these three judges have written.”
He said Jayzel Mattos was Tasered while seven children were in the home.
“She was the supposed victim of this who ended up being Tasered for no good reason,” Seitz said. “It is simply an outrageous case.”
The Mattoses sued Maui County and police officers Darren Agarano, Ryan Aikala, Stuart Kunioka and Halayudha MacKnight after the officers went to the couple’s home in Wailuku after 11 p.m. Aug. 23, 2006, in response to a 911 call reporting a domestic disturbance.
The call from Jayzel Mattos’ 14-year-old daughter reported that things were being thrown around in a fight.
At the home, the officers found Troy Mattos sitting outside the front door of the two-story residence with two bottles of beer nearby. He said that he and his wife had argued but the argument hadn't gotten physical.
Officer Kunioka asked Mattos to get his wife so officers could talk to her and make sure she was safe. When he went into the residence, officer Agarano stepped in the doorway.
Returning with his wife, Mattos became upset that Agarano was in the house and yelled profanities while demanding that the officers leave.
Officers asked Jayzel Mattos to speak with them outside and she agreed, asking her husband and the officers to calm down and not wake her children.
She was between the officers and her husband when officer Aikala went into the hallway to arrest Troy Mattos, who was still yelling at the officers. Aikala bumped against Jayzel Mattos, who said both of her hands touched his chest when she raised her palms to keep the officer from brushing up against her.
Aikala stepped back and asked her if she was touching an officer.
She said she was scared and again asked everyone to calm down and not wake her children. At that point, she said, she felt a pinch on the back of her right hand and “an incredible burning and painful feeling locking all of her joints.” She screamed and fell to the floor. Aikala had deployed his Taser on her, cycling the weapon for five seconds.
Both Troy and Jayzel Mattos were arrested and charged with harassment. She also was charged with obstructing government operations, and he was charged with resisting arrest.
A Wailuku District Court judge dismissed the charges against Jayzel Mattos, and the state dropped criminal charges against her husband.
In their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu, the couple said their rights were violated when the officers entered their residence without a warrant, arrested them and used the Taser on Jayzel Mattos. Judge David Ezra granted the request by the officers for summary judgment to dismiss all of the couple's claims except the excessive force claim based on the Taser use.
The officers appealed the decision not to dismiss the excessive force claim, saying the officers had qualified immunity for their actions.
The appeals court panel agreed.
While saying the question was a “close one,” the panel said “we cannot conclude that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The opinion said the officers “confronted a dangerous and volatile situation” that night.
“When an intoxicated Troy began yelling profanities at the officers and demanding that they leave, the officers felt the need to arrest him to finish their investigation and diffuse the situation,” the opinion said. “Because Jayzel interfered with Troy's arrest and, in doing so, made contact with Aikala, Aikala was justified in removing her from Troy's side. Although an alternative method of force may have been advisable, the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer to use the minimum amount of force necessary to move Jayzel and arrest Troy.”
Lutey said Jayzel Mattos had pushed Aikala, who had tried to move her out of the way and warned her that he would use the Taser if she didn't move.
“The officers used the Taser only once in a domestic violence situation that could have quickly become much more dangerous to everyone involved,” the appeals court opinion said. The opinion distinguished the Maui case from other cases in which courts rejected immunity for officers who repeatedly used a Taser and who used a Taser on a driver during a traffic stop for not wearing a seat belt.
“We're pleased with the 9th Circuit Court's order but are not surprised by it,” Lutey said. “This is the right result. Maui Police Department officers receive extensive training in the use of Tasers. In fact, Tasers have significantly reduced the number of injuries to officers and suspects.
“We vigorously defend against meritless cases and will seek to recover our costs for the defense of this lawsuit. This terminates the case. Our officers have been exonerated.”
While Agarano, Kunioka and MacKnight still work as Wailuku patrol officers, Aikala is no longer employed by the Police Department. He works for Securitas Security Services as head of its Kahului Airport operations.
Former Deputy Corporation Counsel Laureen Martin argued the case. Deputies Corporation Counsel Richard B. Rost and Cheryl Tipton also represented the officers and county.