NorCal Officials Dodge Woman’s False-Arrest Suit

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge has tossed claims that county officials in Northern California falsely arrested a mother on kidnapping charges and putting her twin girls in foster care after she refused to give them back to her ex-husband during a bitter custody dispute.

U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg granted summary judgment to defendants Del Norte County, its then-District Attorney Jon Alexander, and two sheriff’s officers in a Friday order, after plaintiff Jennifer Brown failed to file an opposition to their summary judgment motion.

Seeborg ruled for the defendants after warning Brown – the girls’ mother – that he could throw her case out of court if she didn’t oppose Del Norte’s motion. However, the judge said the county defendants entitled to have the claims dismissed regardless, based largely on a lack of evidence that Alexander knew where Brown and her children were the week before her arrest but failed to say so in an affidavit seeking an arrest warrant.

“Indeed, a reasonable fact-finder would be hard pressed to find the whereabouts-unknown statement false at all, given that the information available to Alexander and Fleshman was days old, and did not precisely identify Brown’s location such that she or the children could be located,” Seeborg wrote in the 8-page ruling.

Brown sued over the arrest April 2013. But the genesis of the lawsuit dates back to January 2012, when Brown and her father took her children to neighboring Humboldt County for sexual-assault medical exams, believing that Brown’s ex-husband – whom she had been battling for custody – had molested them.

Brown’s father, a former county investigator, informed Del Norte County officials by letter and telephone that he was taking the children from the county for their own safety in accordance with California Penal Code § 278.7(a), which states that individuals who have legal child custody are exempt from criminal penalties for kidnapping if they believe a child will be harmed if left with the other guardian.

Alexander nonetheless sought arrest warrants for both Brown and her father on suspicion of kidnapping. Brown was subsequently located with the children at her Del Norte County home and arrested.

Her husband, meanwhile, was cleared of the molestation allegations and granted primary custody of the girls.

Brown claimed she told Alexander of the girls’ whereabouts by telephone and that she was withholding them under § 278.7, but Alexander omitted that information from the affidavit because her ex-husband had contributed to his campaign fund.

Seeborg was unconvinced, tossing both Brown’s state false-arrest claim and her federal Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure claim.

The judge found Brown’s evidence that defendant detective Ed Fleshman purportedly knew Brown was in Humboldt County the week before her arrest “does not directly refute” sworn declarations by Fleshman and Alexander that they did not, in fact, know where she was, “such that a reasonable fact finder could determine the whereabouts-unknown statement in the affidavit was intentionally or recklessly false,” Seeborg wrote.

And had the affidavit included the information in question, it still would have justified issuing an arrest warrant because the county – at 400 square miles – is so large, Seeborg said.

“Although Brown’s whereabouts may not have been entirely unknown … her precise whereabouts were sufficiently unknown that authorities could not locate her and could reasonably infer she was concealing her children,” he wrote.

Moreover, Brown’s § 278.7 notices were defective because they had omitted the address where the children were being kept, so it didn’t matter that the affidavit had failed to mention them, he said.

John Vrieze, the defendants’ attorney, said in an email Monday that he and his clients were pleased with the ruling.

“We felt confident throughout the case that all defendants acted appropriately in handling a complicated and unfortunate matter arising from an aggravated family-law case,” he added.

Seeborg also dismissed Brown’s state-law claims of civil conspiracy, abuse of process and negligence, as well as her daughters’ intentional infliction of emotional distress claims, because the claims were not part of the tort claim she filed with the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors in July 2012.

Brown’s attorney withdrew from the case last December following State Bar disciplinary proceedings, according to Seeborg’s ruling. Brown failed to obtain new counsel, resulting in her failure to file an opposition.

Contact information for Brown could not be located Monday.

Alexander was disbarred in 2014 after the State Bar Court ruled that he had violated ethical and legal standards while district attorney, including loaning $14,000 to a deputy probation officer. A former methamphetamine addict, Alexander accused bar officials of disbarring him over his drug use.

Vrieze practices with Mitchell Brisso Delaney & Vrieze in Eureka, California.

 

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