Maui Police Department Targets MauiTime’s Online Commenters

If you’ve recently left a comment on MauiTime’s Web site, your personal information could soon be in the hands of the Maui Police Department. Last week, MPD and the county prosecutor’s office issued a subpoena ordering the release of Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses for all comments left at during a specified 24-hour period.

The subpoena bars MauiTime from “notifying the account holders,” as that could “jeopardize [a] felony investigation.” But the comments—totaling more than two dozen—were posted in response to a story and video depicting an altercation between Publisher Tommy Russo and MPD Officer Nelson Johnson.

On the night of April 12, Russo encountered the crew of reality star Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman filming in the county-owned Wailuku parking lot bound by Market, Main, Church and Vineyard streets. Russo says that when he approached the crew and identified himself as a newspaper publisher, a member of Chapman’s security team pushed him, struck him in the face and took his cell phone. After Russo retrieved his phone and police arrived on the scene, he shot video that shows Officer Johnson snatching the camera out of his hand, at which point Russo says, “I just got hit in the mouth by you.” Russo says Johnson later twisted his arm behind his back and held him deliberately for an extended period while Russo pleaded for help. Russo was never arrested or charged with any crime related to the incident. Neither was Chapman’s security guard or any member of Chapman’s crew.

[Click here to watch the video footage and read Russo's account]

More than a month later, the altercation remains under investigation—and Officer Johnson remains an active member of the force. Now, MPD has launched another investigation, into an anonymous comment they claim may amount to “terroristic threatening,” defined in the Hawaii Revised Statutes as threatening “by word or conduct, to cause bodily injury to another person or serious damage to property of another or to commit a felony.”

MPD Detective Stephen Orikasa, who is investigating the case, told us the department plans to use the IP addresses to “identify the individual” who left the comment and to interview him or her. He said the terroristic threatening charge may be altered, depending on what the investigation reveals. “We aren’t going after [MauiTime],” he added.

The subpoena is accompanied by an unattached printout with one highlighted comment and a handwritten note reading, “Specifically this posting.”

Attempts to reach both Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John Kim and Police Chief Gary Yabuta were not immediately successful.

Russo is due in court June 3 to answer the subpoena.

Reached for comment, Thomas Burke, a California-based media attorney, said the subpoena “appears to be an overzealous reaction to an article that elicited a variety of comments.”

Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and First Amendment chair of the national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, took things a step further. “This is a dangerous and unwarranted intrusion into the privacy rights of MauiTime readers and the First Amendment rights of the paper,” Redmond wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t think of anything more likely to have a chilling effect on free speech than the thought that the police would get the identities of anyone who happened to criticize them.”