State Supreme Court dismisses charge against Maui publisher

Russo was detained six years ago for recording MPD traffic enforcement

Thomas Russo

The Maui News

The state Supreme Court has dismissed a misdemeanor charge against a weekly tabloid publisher who was detained when he used his cellphone to videotape a police traffic enforcement operation six years ago.

In an opinion filed Dec. 14, the court said “the record does not support a finding of probable cause” that Thomas Russo failed to comply with a police officer’s order.

Russo, publisher of Maui Time, was arrested the morning of Nov. 20, 2012, when police Traffic Section officers were doing enforcement along Haleakala Highway near its intersection with Hana Highway. The officers were looking for oversized vehicles and ones with illegally tinted windows.

After reports of downhill traffic being backed up to Haliimaile, Russo stopped on the side of the highway’s makai-bound lanes behind two unmarked police cars and began using his cellphone to record the operation.

Two police officers reported telling Russo multiple times to step back, saying he was in their area of operations and in danger of being struck by a vehicle.

In July 2014, Wailuku District Judge Kelsey Kawano dismissed the failure to comply charge, as well as a disorderly conduct charge.

After the prosecution appealed the ruling, the state Intermediate Court of Appeals in March vacated the order dismissing the failure to comply charge and sent the case back to the District Court.

Russo asked the state Supreme Court to review the case, and the court held oral arguments at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in November before issuing the opinion.

In affirming the District Court order dismissing the case, the Supreme Court said Russo’s cellphone video “plainly demonstrates” that he had obeyed officers’ orders.

“Russo appeared to make a concerted effort to comply with the officers’ instructions, and the video shows that he walked away or backwards when ordered by the officers to step or stand back,” the opinion says.

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