WASHINGTON >> The Supreme Court has decided that it will not review the appropriateness of stun guns used by police on suspects in cases involving a Maui woman and a woman from Washington state.
The high court today refused to hear appeals from police in Hawaii and Washington, or people who got stun-gunned by officers.
A federal appeals court said the officers couldn’t be sued because, at the time, it wasn’t “clearly established” under law that their actions violated the women’s rights. Still, the court opened the door for lawsuits in future incidents by saying the officers’ actions, if proven true, would be unlawful.
The Hawaii case involved Jayzel Mattos, who was stun-gunned in 2006 in her house by Maui police who said she interfered with the arrest of her husband, Troy.
The officers appealed to the Supreme Court because the decision could be used to justify future lawsuits against police over alleged violations of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
The decision “has made it extremely difficult for officers to know when Tasers can be used constitutionally,” the officers in the Maui case said in court papers.
Last year, a 10-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Mattos’ constitutional rights may have been violated, but Maui police were immune from her claims because the law on the use of Tasers was unclear at the time.
When the decision was handed down in November 2011, Mattos’ lawyer Eric Seitz and Daniel Gluck, senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said the decision made clear that police can use Tasers only under certain circumstances.
Gluck said the circumstances include the safety of the officers or other people.
In a court brief supporting the officers, the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association said Tasers are safer and more effective than other methods of subduing suspects who resist arrest. A U.S. Justice Department-funded study of 24,380 uses of force by police in 12 departments showed that using Tasers reduced injury rates for suspects by at least 65 percent, the association said.
In the Seattle case, Malaika Brooks was stopped for speeding in a school zone on Nov. 23, 2004. The appeals court said she told police officers she wasn’t speeding and that, while she would take a citation, she wouldn’t sign it because she believed that would be an admission of guilt.
The officers threatened to arrest her, and Brooks refused an order to get out of her car. After officer Donald Jones showed her a Taser, she told the police she was seven months pregnant. She continued to refuse to leave the car, and Jones applied the Taser three times within a minute to her thigh, arm and neck, according to court documents. The officers then pulled her from the car and arrested her.
In Hawaii, four police officers went to the Maui home of Mattos and her husband Troy to investigate a possible domestic dispute on Aug. 23, 2006. Troy Mattos was outside, and two officers followed him indoors to ensure his wife was unharmed, the appeals court said.
The husband insisted that officers leave the home, and Jayzel Mattos stood in front of him and suggested everyone calm down and go outside, the appeals court said. Officer Ryan Aikala moved forward to arrest the husband. As Jayzel Mattos put up her arm to keep Aikala from pressing against her chest, he said, “Are you touching an officer?” and shot her with his Taser without warning, the appeals court said.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jayzel Mattos was “the non-threatening victim of a domestic dispute whom they have come to protect.” It said, “The fact that Aikala gave no warning to Jayzel before tasing her pushes this use of force far beyond the pale.”
Brooks’s alleged offenses were minor and she didn’t pose a threat to the officers’ safety, the appeals court said. “Three tasings in such rapid succession provided no time for Brooks to recover from the extreme pain she experienced, gather herself and reconsider her refusal to comply,” it said.
The cases are Daman v. Brooks, 11-898, and Agarano v. Mattos, 11-1032, Brooks v. Daman, 11-1045, and Mattos v. Agarano, 11-1165.
Bloomberg News and the Associated Press contributed to this story.