NorCal District Attorney Must Face Charges
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Northern California officials must face most claims that they shielded a child molester who contributed to a local district attorney's campaign and arrested a mother when she took the children to be examined in another county, a federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti found that Barry and Jennifer Brown sufficiently plead allegations that suspended Del Norte County DA Jon Alexander and local deputies had Barry Brown falsely charged with kidnapping when the Browns took the children to another county to be examined.
Jennifer is the mother of two co-plaintiff children Jane Does 1 and 2; Barry, her father, is a former investigator for the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office.
In the Browns' lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that when Jennifer told a sheriff's deputy in June 2009 that her 2-year-old daughter said Crockett "had hurt her vagina with his finger" and that it appeared red and irritated, the sheriff took no action. A local hospital refused to examine the girl and neither she nor her daughter were interviewed by police about these or earlier complaints against Crockett, the Browns say.
The plaintiffs claim Crockett, co-owner of a local flower-growing business, and his family contributed to Alexander's election campaign and "have exerted their personal and political influence throughout county agencies to effectively protect Crockett from criminal and child protective investigations and also to inflict harm on plaintiffs."
Crockett and Jennifer Brown divorced in 2009 after 4 years of marriage, after which they shared custody, with Jennifer the primary caregiver of their twin girls, born in 2007.
Concerned that the officials were ignoring their claims, Barry Brown claims he contacted his former employer to obtain a Sexual Assault Response Team exam. He was told the children could have the exam if they went to Eureka, the seat of Humboldt County.
Barry says he wrote a letter to the defendants and told Alexander over the phone that he was temporarily removing the children from Del Norte County for their safety and under the terms of California Penal Code Section 278.5. But Alexander and other officials had a magistrate judge issue a warrant accusing the Browns of kidnapping the girls, and said they did not know where they were, according to the complaint.
Barry Brown says he was arrested the next day at the Crescent City office of the California Highway Patrol while working on a separate investigation.
The defendants later arrested Jennifer Brown and Child Welfare Services took her children into custody without due process while Crockett had unfettered access to the children, the Browns claim.
In the present ruling, Conti refused to grant absolute immunity to Alexander, noting Barry Brown's letter and phone call with Alexander before ruling that, "[s]o far that he incorporated these facts into his decision to work with Defendants [Del Norte County Sheriff Dean] Wilson and [Deputy Sheriff Ed] Fleshman to support the Warrant affidavit, this work was not part of his quasi-judicial advocacy role, and he is not entitled to absolute immunity for these activities."
The judge also rejected the defendants' argument that Alexander can only lose immunity if the complaint alleges that he was the person who created the affidavit, finding that a case they cited did not make such a distinction.
Alexander is not entitled to qualified immunity either, according to the ruling, since not only did the Browns sufficiently allege violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, those rights were clearly established at the time of Alexander's alleged misconduct, because "clearly established law would have put Defendant Alexander on notice that his conduct violated the Constitution."
The judge also cited Barry Brown's interactions with Alexander to uphold their Fourth Amendment claims for search and seizure.
According to the ruling, "[t]he County Defendants would therefore have been on notice that an exception applied to Mr. and Mrs. Brown taking the children out of the state. Moreover, the statement in the affidavit that the County Defendants had no knowledge of the children's whereabouts would be plainly false, given this notice."
The judge also ruled that the Browns did not have to identify the warrant affiant specifically because Wilson, Alexander and Fleshman allegedly worked together to ensure relevant information was omitted from the affidavit.
The court did dismiss with leave to amend Jennifer Brown's excessive force claim.
Finding ongoing state custody proceedings unrelated to the case and noting that plaintiffs must be able to litigate federal claims, Conti rejected the defendants' argument that the court should abstain from hearing the case, or stay it pending the outcome of the state court proceedings.
The judge dismissed state law claims against Child Welfare Services employees Julie Cain, and Cindy Salatnay, with leave to amend, and without leave to amend against Alexander, finding that to do so would be futile.
Though the Browns claim their immunity does not extend to actions taken after an investigation, the judge noted that "California courts have not embraced this distinction."
The court also dismissed municipal liability claims against Del Norte County without prejudice and granted immunity against state law claims to Wilson and Fleishman.
Finally, Conti dismissed with leave to re-file abuse claims against Crockett, finding that they did not directly relate to the main allegations in the case.
The Browns' lawsuit is not the only challenge facing Alexander.
A federal judge ruled in April that Alexander should be disbarred for allegedly taking a loan from a defense attorney working on a case he later dismissed.
The Del Norte County Board of supervisors then suspended Alexander without pay, replacing him with a temporary assistant while he exhausts his appeals, according to media reports.
The Browns are represented by Thomas N. Petersen, with Black, Chapman, Webber & Stevens, of Medford, Ore.
The defendants represented by John Michael Vrieze from the firm Mitchell Brisso Delaney & Vrieze in Eureka.
Neither side replied immediately to a request for comment from Courthouse News Service.