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.
The Provo Daily Herald published an editorial last week that demanded Stoney be suspended immediately, pending the outcome of an investigation by Utah's JCC into "egregious" violations of a woman's rights. "Unfortunately," the editorial continued, "the arcane wheels of judicial discipline move slowly, and he will remain on the bench, continuing to judge cases even though his competence and ethics are in question. This presents a danger to the public."
The Deseret News has obtained a couple of letters, stamped "confidential," from Collin Winchester, executive director of the JCC, to Stoney. The first letter, dated Nov. 19, 2007, admonishes the judge "to carefully follow the applicable statutes and case law regarding contempt procedures. This advice is now provided for the second time, the first being by letter dated Feb. 12, 2004."
The second letter, dated June 27, 2011, addresses separate contempt cases against Zachary Ellis and Barbara Acord. Ellis, according to one attorney, was sent to jail for 30 days on contempt charges that were never explained — "The attorneys couldn't even figure out why he was there," says one of them. As a result of his jail sentence, his attorneys allege he lost his business.
The letter states, "In the Ellis matter it is alleged that you ordered that Mr. Ellis to be held without bail because of his behavior in court. … It is alleged that you failed to apply the law and maintain professional competence. It is also alleged that you failed to be patient, dignified and courteous to Mr. Ellis.
"In the Acord matter, it is alleged that you directed a clerk to prepare and issue a $10,000 cash-only arrest warrant for Ms. Acord in response to Ms. Acord's treatment of court clerks via telephone earlier that day. It is alleged that the amount and cash-only nature of the bail was excessive in light of the pending charge and that … your actions undermined public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and constituted the appearance of impropriety if not actual impropriety. It is also alleged that you failed to be patient, dignified and courteous to Ms. Acord when she appeared in your court."
The JCC decided to publicly reprimand the judge in the Acord case, but Stoney appealed and the matter is pending a ruling by the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Stoney sits on the bench and it's business as usual.