May 29 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court stayed out of a pair of lawsuits in which two women said police used excessive force by shooting them with Tasers.
The court rejected appeals from both sides in the cases from Seattle, Washington, and Maui, Hawaii.
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.
In the Seattle case, a stun gun was used on a woman who, after being stopped for speeding, refused to sign the citation or get out of her car. The Hawaii woman was shot with a Taser after police came to her home to investigate possible domestic violence and she tried to keep them from arresting her husband.
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 Hawaii case said in court papers.
Safer, More Effective
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 Jayzel 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.
‘Touching an Officer?’
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.
Aikala used the Taser on Mattos in “dart mode,” which the appeals court said propels a pair of probes into a person and temporarily paralyzes the muscles throughout the body. The court said police used “drive stun mode” on Brooks, which delivers an electric shock but doesn’t override the body’s central nervous system.
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.
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