Wednesday, January 12, 2010
Ninth Circuit Rejects Suit Against Police Over Taser Use
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Police officers responding to a 14-year-old girl’s 911 call reporting domestic violence against her mother did not use excessive force when they deployed a Taser against the alleged victim to get past her to arrest her husband, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
A three-judge panel ruled that officers did not violate a Hawaii woman’s civil rights given the dangerous nature of domestic violence situations, the close quarters, the woman’s husband’s intoxicated state and her inadvertent physical contact with an officer.
The officers used the Taser on Jayzel Mattos during the 2006 incident in Maui County after her palms touched Officer Ryan Aikala’s chest while she stood between him and Troy Mattos, who officers were trying to apprehend.
Jayzel Mattos’s daughter told a 911 dispatcher that her mother and Troy Mattos were engaged in a physical altercation and that things were being thrown around. Officers responding said Troy Mattos—six-foot-three-inches tall and weighing approximately 200 pounds—was intoxicated and began yelling profanities when they entered the residence to check on the alleged victim.
The Mattoses filed a federal civil rights suit over the warrantless entry and arrests, and Jayzel Mattos brought a claim over the Taser use. She said she was only attempting to ask officers and her husband to calm down and not disturb the children when she was hit with a five-second burst from the Taser.
U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra of the District of Hawaii granted summary judgment to the officers, but ruled that there were questions of fact material to deciding whether the use of the Taser was constitutionally reasonable.
The officers appealed, and a three-judge panel in a per curiam opinion said that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the government’s interest in law enforcement officer safety outweighed the intrusion on Jayzel Mattos’ right to be secure in her person.
“Even though we find that use of a Taser represents a serious intrusion on interests protected by the Fourth Amendment, we recognize that in responding to a domestic violence call, the officers confronted a dangerous and volatile situation,” the judges said.
“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. 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.”
The panel opined that it would not have been clear to a reasonable officer in 2006 that use of a Taser in such a situation was constitutionally impermissible, noting that neither the Ninth Circuit nor the U.S. Supreme Court had decided an excessive force case involving use of a Taser at that point.
Examining recent decisions by the Ninth and Eleventh circuits, the judges also said the officers’ conduct was not so patently violative of Mattos’s constitutional rights that a reasonable official would know the actions were unconstitutional without court guidance, noting:
“The officers used the Taser only once in a domestic violence situation that could have quickly become much more dangerous to everyone involved.”
The panel was composed of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Judges Jay S. Bybee and Consuelo M. Callahan.
The case is Mattos v. Agarano, 08-15567.
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