Stun-gun use in Seattle, Maui cases was excessive, court says
A federal appeals court ruled Monday that police in Seattle and Maui used excessive force in separate cases involving stun guns, deeming the jolts fired at a pregnant woman and a wife involved in a domestic dispute to be violations of the women's constitutional rights.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judged the debilitating stun-gun blasts to be excessive because in neither case did the women pose any threat to the safety of the officers.
But the court, sitting in its full 11-judge forum used to decide important questions of law, granted immunity from prosecution to the police officers involved because the law governing stun-gun use wasn't yet clear at the time of the 2004 and 2006 incidents.
Four of the 11 judges dissented in part, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who wrote that he was concerned that branding the use of stun guns as excessive force would lead police to use more dangerous methods to subdue those resisting arrest.
In the 2004 incident in Seattle, seven-months-pregnant Malaika Brooks was stopped for entering a 20-mph school zone at 32 mph.
She refused to sign the traffic ticket or get out of the car when police threatened to arrest her.
After a half-hour standoff and the arrival of two backup officers, police fired three blasts of the taser to her thigh, arm and neck.
When Brooks fell over, immobilized, police dragged her out of the car onto the pavement, laid her face down and handcuffed her.
Almost two years later, Jayzel Mattos summoned Maui police to a domestic disturbance at her home, saying her husband, Troy Mattos, was drunk and abusive.
When four police officers arrived and one moved to arrest Troy Mattos, his wife stepped between them and asked everyone to calm down.
One of the officers deployed his stun gun in dart mode, causing Jayzel Mattos to collapse to the floor.
Both women sued the police officers, claiming their 4th Amendment right to be free from excessive force had been violated.
Monday's ruling by the San Francisco-based appeals court could now establish law that stun-gun use is excessive if police aren't facing a threat of harm.
That legal clarification could lead to officers being denied immunity from prosecution in any future excessive-force stun-gun incidents.
-- Carol J. Williams
Photo: One type of stun gun, a Taser International X26 with cartridge and spent probes. Credit: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times