The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals may set guidelines for when police officers can use their electronic Taser stun guns in Hawaii and other western states, based on an appeal of a decision by a three-judge panel of the court.
Depending on their actions, a case with Maui ties could very well go to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could result in a Taser rule covering the whole country. Legal observers say the highest court in the land has not yet ruled on whether to set national guidelines for the increasingly frequent use of the electronic guns to subdue suspects both big and small.
For the Maui case, last week all the 9th Circuit appellate judges convened to decide the best course of action for the nine-state region when it comes to Tasers. Deputy Corporation Counsel Moana Lutey, who argued before the panel, said it may take them up to a year to reach a decision.
In January, a panel of 9th Circuit judges threw out a lower court's ruling on a civil case filed against the county. The appeals court found that the police officers involved did not violate the rights of Troy and Jayzel Mattos or use any bad judgment during what court papers describe as a volatile encounter involving alcohol, rage and at least one very frightened child.
For hours in Pasadena, Calif., the judges reviewed a 2006 Maui domestic abuse call, in which police shocked the alleged woman victim, Jayzel Mattos, with a 50,000-volt gun after she tried to stop the arrest of her husband, Troy Mattos, who had been drinking heavily and shouted profanities at the officers.
The police said Jayzel Mattos behaved "belligerent" herself when they arrived at her Wailuku home at about 11 p.m. Aug. 23, 2006. She refused to follow the four police officers' instructions, they said.
Authorities said she even put herself between them and her husband and tried to prevent them from arresting Troy Mattos.
The police were there that evening because the couple's 14-year-old girl had called 911 and said that her stepfather was intoxicated, abusing her mom and throwing things around the house, according to previous reports.
But complicating matters further for Maui County is the fact that the officer who tased Jayzel Mattos, according to records, is Ryan Aikala. He's a former police officer who had been convicted of third-degree assault and served a couple of weeks in jail in 2003.
Aikala currently is the head of operations at Kahului Airport for Securitas Security Services, which is an international private firm.
The Mattoses' attorney, Eric Seitz, points out that Aikala was fired from the police department after he was arrested for slapping two men in a Kahului bathroom in 2003, which resulted in the misdemeanor assault charge. However, despite county officials saying he refused to correct his behavior back then, he was again on the job after a 2nd Circuit Court judge agreed with an arbitrator who wanted him reinstated.
Back in 2006, when police arrived at the Mattos home, they reported seeing a drunken Troy Mattos outside. They went in to check on Jayzel Mattos. According to the county's version of events, the police infuriated Troy Mattos by trying to help his wife. But when they tried to arrest him, his wife stood between police and her husband.
They said they asked her to move, but she wouldn't. When an officer showed her his Taser, she reportedly said, "Go ahead and tase me."
She said the officer pulled her out of the way, she allegedly shoved him, and that's when he tased her.
The husband and wife were later charged with harassment. She was accused of obstruction, and he with resisting arrest.
But a state District Court judge dropped all the charges against the Mattoses. Soon after, Troy and Jayzel Mattos filed a U.S. District Court civil rights violations case against the four officers and Maui County.
The Maui County Council in 2008 authorized the Department of Corporation Counsel to settle the case, according to a resolution members passed.
But Seitz, a Honolulu lawyer, said there was never any settlement because the county's attorneys weren't interested in discussing one. And they "adamantly defended the officers involved," Seitz said Saturday.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra dismissed the county from any culpability, and later a three-judge 9th Circuit Court panel ruled in favor of the officers, too.
But the case remains open, according to 9th Circuit Court records, with motions filed by Seitz as recently as Dec. 11.
Both sides told The Maui News that the full court will vindicate them.
"We feel very good about the argument," said Seitz. "Several of the judges expressed their opinions that the use of a Taser was unreasonable in circumstances where Ms. Mattos was acting as the peacemaker, trying to calm the situation down, and that the police officer's version of the events is factually disputed - as Judge Ezra found - so as to require that the case be tried before a jury."
Lutey also said that an eventual ruling from the Court of Appeals has the potential to impact Taser use for all police officers in its region. She maintains that Aikala and the other three officers all acted appropriately under the circumstances.
"For example, the 9th Circuit panel may decide to simply agree that the officers are properly entitled to qualified immunity," Lutey said in an e-mail to The Maui News. "If that happens, the impact of that ruling would mean that other police officers in similar situations, such as ours, would be entitled to also use Tasers.
"However, the 9th Circuit could establish parameters for Taser use. I really don't know what they will do. I do not believe that there will be a finding that the officers in our case used bad judgment, since their actions did not violate any laws."
The full judges' panel also folded the Maui case in with another that occurred in Seattle, which has led some attorneys to speculate that the appellate judges have bigger ideas in mind. In that instance, the American Civil Liberties Union said that a pregnant woman was shot three times by a Taser during what should have been a routine police traffic stop.
Luckily, they said, she later delivered a healthy baby.
But police have argued successfully for years that Tasers do no long-term harm to suspects. In addition, Taser supporters say they've helped increase the length of careers for countless officers who often must retire because of bad shoulders, necks, backs and wrists after wrestling matches on the pavement with defendants for reasons as stupid as that the person was just looking to fight some cops.
Lutey said whatever the judges decide, she hopes they don't put unnecessary restrictions on police use of Tasers, considering how many lives of police officers, victims and suspects the devices have saved. The alternative, she noted, can at times be lethal force.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton@maui news.com.