SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A judge dismissed federal, but not state, claims against officials in a Northern California county arising from a "scorched-earth" child custody battle and allegations of government corruption.
U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg on Thursday granted Del Norte County officials' motion for summary judgment on a woman's federal claims of deprivation of familial association, but allowed state claims to proceed.
The lawsuit stems from the allegedly unwarranted seizure of minor twin daughters, Jane Does 1 and 2, and their temporary placement by Child Welfare Services into foster care after their mother took them into a neighboring county "without legal authority to do so," breaking a court order to return them to her ex-husband and failing to appear at a Feb. 3, 2012 custody hearing.
Seeborg described the fight between Jennifer Brown and ex-husband Daniel Crocket as a "scorched-earth" battle for custody of their daughters that dates back to January 2012, when Brown and her father took her children to neighboring Humboldt County for medical exams.
Believing that Crocket had molested the girls, Brown and her father Barry Brown, a former county investigator, took them to a Humboldt County hospital for Sexual Assault Response Team exams.
Brown said she took them to Humboldt County because Child Welfare Services in Del Norte County did not respond adequately to the sexual abuse allegations. Del Norte County is the farthest northwest county in California, on the Oregon border. Its county seat and only incorporated city is Crescent City.
Brown says her father 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 "criminal penalties for child abduction do not apply to those who have legal custody of the child, [and] have 'a good faith and reasonable belief that the child, if left with the other person, will suffer immediate bodily injury or emotional harm.'"
Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander nonetheless issued arrest warrants for the Browns.
Crocket was cleared of the sexual molestation allegations and the court granted him primary custody of the girls.
Brown and her daughters sued Crocket, Alexander, Del Norte County and others for several claims under state and federal law, including deprivation of familial association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Brown claims that Alexander, whom she had informed of the girls' whereabouts by telephone, omitted material information from affidavits in support of the arrest warrants for child abduction, and that he did so because Crocket contributed to his campaign fund.
The defendants sought judgment on the pleadings on Jan. 13, 2016.
Although Brown claims she spoke with Alexander and told him where the girls were and why they were there, Seeborg said she nonetheless was obligated to follow court orders.
"Jennifer's contact with Alexander did not relieve her of the obligation to comply with the custody and visitation order or her duty to appear at the Feb. 3 custody hearing," Seeborg wrote in the march 3 order. "Accordingly, even if Alexander submitted false information in support of the application for the protective custody warrant, those statements were unnecessary to the finding of probable cause.
Specifically, even it Jennifer has complied with California Penal Code § 278.7(a), such compliance relieved her of the prospect of criminal punishment for child abduction, not her obligation to comply with the custody and visitation order. Plaintiffs have therefore failed to show that a reasonable jury could conclude the county defendants impermissibly interfered with plaintiffs' right to familial affiliation; defendants are entitled to summary judgment." (Citations omitted.)
Seeborg ruled that Brown's remaining state claims may proceed, and retained jurisdiction over the case on the basis of "judicial economy and convenience."