Doug Robinson: Will judge face up to justice?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2012 1:00 a.m. MDT

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SARATOGA SPRINGs — In what country would an ordinary, everyday woman be handcuffed behind her back and thrown into jail for 24 hours for having a cellphone in a courtroom, with one man acting as judge and jury?

A banana republic? Some other Third World country?

No, it was right here in the USA, in Saratoga Springs, no less — in the court of the apparently not-so-honorable Keith Stoney, whose reputation as a courtroom bully continues to grow.

Last spring, I wrote about the case of Elaine Damron. She's the woman whose son was brought to court two years ago because his dog got loose and was picked up by the city. Instead of a simple fine, Stoney wanted the kid to plead guilty to three misdemeanors that would have meant thousands of dollars in fines, a criminal record and probation. Can you say cash cow?

When the family refused, that's when the fun began. It was at this point the incredulous Damron decided she'd better record the proceedings with her cellphone to protect her son. When she was told that recording was banned, she stopped and put it away, then retrieved it from her purse once more, she says, to make sure she had shut it off.

Minutes later, Stoney announced that he had been informed someone was recording in court. "It looks like someone is going to jail," she heard Stoney say as she was taken away. She was forced to wait the rest of the day until the court was empty before she returned to appear before Stoney for contempt of court. She apologized and explained she didn't know recording was against the rules. She was accused of recording a second time after she had been asked not to, even though an examination of her phone — which was done without a warrant — revealed she had made only one recording.

"They say I pled guilty; I didn't," Damron says. "They just took me away. I wasn't given a hearing."

She was booked into jail, dressed in orange pants and a striped shirt and put behind bars for the first time in her life.

Since then, Damron has fought back, and her case finally found its way into the 4th District Court of Judge Claudia Laycock, who, after a daylong evidentiary hearing, returned a blistering rebuke of Stoney last week. In her ruling, Laycock wrote that Stoney "failed to afford Ms. Damron the due process required. … Judge Stoney's error was egregious and its consequences were severe." She also wrote that Stoney's testimony in her courtroom "lacked credibility," which is a polite way of saying he lied to cover his backside.

Laycock concluded "that Ms. Damron should not have been held in contempt, should not have been sentenced to jail for 24 hours, and should not have forfeited her cellphone." That's game, set and match for the 41-year-old hairdresser from Saratoga Springs.

"All I wanted was vindication so Utah could see what a tyrant (Stoney) is," says Damron. "He's an awful person to destroy people's lives the way he does and then to lie about it. He was the biggest, fattest liar in court. He contradicted everyone else's testimony, and Claudia Laycock saw right through it."

More than a year ago Damron testified for the Utah Legislature, which was exploring the pitfalls of justice courts, which are laws unto themselves with little oversight, often serving as local cash cows.

"The mayor (Mia Love) and the city let Stoney … do what he does because he's a cash cow," Damron says.

There have been public protests on the streets against Stoney's abuses and websites devoted to his ouster. At least five cases have been filed against Stoney with the Judicial Conduct Commission.

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