By Wendy Osher
Maui officers who used a Taser to subdue a Wailuku woman while responding to a domestic call are entitled to qualified immunity, under an appeals court decision issued on Monday.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, which covered the Maui case and an unrelated case in Seattle, stated that while the plaintiffs have alleged constitutional violations, the officer defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not clearly established at the time of the incidents.
In the Maui case, Mattos v. Agarano, Plaintiff Jayzel Mattos claimed excessive use of force after being “Tased” during an encounter with police officers on August 23, 2006.
According to court records, Jayzel Mattos, who was in a domestic dispute with her husband, Troy, asked her 14-year-old daughter to call police.
Responding to the scene were Maui Police Officers Darren Agarano, Halayudha MacKnight, Stuart Kunioka and Ryan Aikala.
As the officers approached the residence, they saw Troy sitting on the top of the stairs outside the front door with a couple of open beer bottles lying nearby, according to court documents.
Officer Kunioka approached Troy, who told officers that an argument occurred, said there was no physical altercation. Court documents state that Troy became agitated and rude according to officer accounts.
Kunioka then asked Troy if he could speak to Jayzel to ensure that she was OK. When Troy returned with his wife, court records indicate he became angry when he saw Officer Agarano inside his residence.
Officer Agarano then asked Jayzel if he could speak to her outside, and she agreed; but before she could comply, Officer Aikala entered the residence, stood in the middle of the living room and announced that Troy was under arrest, according to court records.
The background section of the Appeals Court opinion notes that Jayzel, who was standing in front of Troy, did not immediately move out of the way.
As Aikala moved in to arrest Troy, court records indicate that he pushed up against Jayzel’s chest, at which point she “extended [her] arm to stop [her] breasts from being smashed against Aikala’s body.”
At that point, Aikala reportedly asked Jayzel, “Are you touching an officer?”
At the same time, Jayzel was speaking to Officer Agarano, asking why Troy was being arrested. She also expressed concern about the commotion, apparently worried the activity would disturb her sleeping children.
Court records state that, “without warning, Aikala shot his Taser at Jayzel in dart-mode.”
Both Troy and Jayzel were taken into custody. Troy was charged with harassment and resisting arrest; and Jayzel was charged with harassment and obstructing government operations. All charges were ultimately dropped.
The Mattoses sued the officers and others for violations of their Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights based on warrantless entry into their home, their arrests, and use of the Taser.
The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all of the Mattos’ claims except their Fourth Amendment excessive force claim for the Tasing.
The district court determined that questions of fact existed regarding whether the use of a Taser against Mattos was constitutionally reasonable and, therefore, denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
The new opinion effectively reverses the district courts’ denial of qualified immunity.
The officers filed this interlocutory appeal challenging the denial of their claims to qualified immunity.