Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Contempt in Maricopa

Adam Stoddard, bow your head in shame. Pay a fine. Take some classes. But skip the apology.

That's the guts of what the court of appeals said.

Let's review.

Adam Stoddard is, of course, the detention officer who felt it his duty to read and then copy confidential communication between a criminal defendant and his lawyer. In open court. While the defendant's lawyer was giving her sentencing speech to the judge. Ignored by judge and prosecutors.

There was, you recall, a hearing where Stoddard was found in indirect civil contempt and ordered to apologize to Joanne Cuccia (the lawyer whose files he invaded) or go to jail. Encouraged by his boss, Sheriff Joe, Stoddard refused to apologize. Instead, he went off to jail

Part of my job in providing security to the court is to inspect documents brought into the courtroom. On October 19th, I saw a document that I had not yet screened, and that raised security concerns. I retrieved that document in plain sight and had court personnel copy it to preserve it as evidence in case it was a security breach.

It was a split second decision and I do not regret my actions.

And then he went to the court of appeals.

Yesterday (actually, today, April 6, but it'll be yesterday by the time I get this posted), the court of appeals issued its ruling in an opinion by Judge Maurice Portley, for a unanimous three-judge panel. Nick Martin at Heat City, Paul Rubin at New Times, and Michael Kiefer at the Arizona Republic all tell the same story: Contempt upheld, sanction vacated.

Of course, it's more complicated than that.

Judge Donahoe (who, as Nick Martin points out, retired last week) found Stoddard in indirect civil contempt. Stoddard argued that Donahoe had no right to do that. He should, Stoddard apparently said, have found Stoddard in criminal contempt because his contemptuous behavior directly interfered with the actions of the court. Portley agreed that Stoddard was criminally contemptible (OK, contemptuous, I was just funnin'). But he was also civilly contemptuous, a distinction achieved in Arizona simply by means of the imposed punishment. And that was just fine. Contempt, it seems, is contempt.

Stoddard also argued that Donahoe denied him a right to present a full defense. Nonsense, said Portley. He got to say what he wanted. For instance, he said that there was nothing problematic that he saw in the letter which he had photocopied because it was necessary to preserve it as evidence of wrongdoing. Cool. You go Adam.

Finally, he argued that the punishment - that apology to Cuccia - violated his First Amendment rights. The court declined to answer that question on the principle that constitutional issues should not be examined if it isn't necessary. Since the sanction was inappropriate (Cuccia suffered no harm, Portley said, even if she thinks she did), it should be vacated. So instead of an apology, Stoddard should be maybe fined. Or forced to take a class in courtroom behavior and attorney-client privilege. Or to announce that what he did was wrong and he wouldn't do it again.

That last option is particularly interesting. Here's what Portley wrote:
Additionally, the court could consider having Stoddard tell the sentencing judge in open court what he admitted under examination by his lawyer: If he could do things over, he would either ask to approach the bench and apprise the court of his concerns or he would call his superiors about obtaining a warrant before independently deciding to invade Cuccia’s file.
Courts are confined to the record before them in making decisions. Stoddard said what he said during the hearing. But afterwards, after the contempt hearing, after the sentence was imposed, he said something rather different.
It was a split second decision and I do not regret my actions.
So, basically, he'd do it again.

Lesson decisively not learned.

But then, why would it be? Adam Stoddard, after all, works for Sheriff Joe.

No comments:

Post a Comment