JUSTICE ISN'T SERVED
Waiting for his trial to begin, J.D. Campbell smiled the confident smile of a prominent citizen, a pillar of the community of Peoria. Sitting in a small justice courtroom in Peoria on August 9, the local real estate mogul and businessman seemed certain that justice would smile back.
Clad in a turquoise bola tie, yellow shirt and plaid pants, Campbell joked with his attorney, local reporters, even the Peoria police officer who was supposed to testify against him. Campbell's lightheartedness seemed to belie the seriousness of the charge against him: unlawfully imprisoning a court process server who had attempted to serve Campbell with a lawsuit.
But in the nine months since the alleged crime, Campbell had managed to dodge a felony kidnaping charge. Initially, a county prosecutor assigned to Peoria cases had convinced a justice of the peace that Campbell should face a felony charge. However, the county prosecutors who handle felonies overruled that, seeking the lowest possible charge against Campbell.
Before any evidence against Campbell could be presented last week, Justice of the Peace Pro Tem Ronald Johnson (the sitting justice had recused himself, because he is an acquaintance of Campbell's) dismissed the charges on a "technicality," saying the matter would be better heard in civil court.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
Process servers watched the Campbell case with incredulity, and now fear that those who act out against process servers--who are never welcomed with open arms--will go unpunished.
"It's going to open the door to avoid service," says Joe Reyes of Arizona Process Servers Association. "The message people will take from this is it's all right for you to kidnap process servers and hold them against their will."
It all started last November 14, when Joanne McDowell, who is licensed by the county Superior Court, went to Campbell's Peoria residence on North 77th Avenue to serve him a summons and a complaint that Campbell had reneged on a $5,000 promissory note.
McDowell had to drive through a security gate to get onto the property. The gate bore "No Trespassing" signs, but, because she was licensed, she entered, anyway, identified herself to Campbell and attempted to serve him.
Campbell responded by telling McDowell that she "didn't have a right to bother him at home," McDowell remembers. He told her to serve him at his headquarters on 90th Avenue and Pinnacle Peak Road, site of Campbell's realty company, two water companies and Campbell Mercantile, a restaurant and convenience store.
McDowell, however, was only given Campbell's home address. And because Campbell's wife was named on the complaint as well, McDowell couldn't legally serve it anywhere but at his home. But J.D. Campbell, a veteran at being served with lawsuits, had other ideas. "I'm going to teach you people a lesson," McDowell recalls Campbell saying.
He locked the security gate behind her, and told her he was calling the police. McDowell gave him the telephone number.
McDowell became concerned. She was isolated and not visible to anyone from the street. Her only way out would have been to ram the fence with her car or climb through barbed wire. She didn't know if Campbell had actually called the police; nor did she know what he meant about teaching her "a lesson." There were "two big dogs" roaming the property. At one point, one dog ran toward her, but Campbell called it off.
"I was scared to death," she says. "Nobody could see me, and nobody knew I was there."
So McDowell locked herself in her car and called police herself on her mobile phone. A dispatcher said the police were already on their way.
When they finally arrived at Campbell's home 40 minutes later, the police were in a quandary. Campbell told police he had posted his gate specifically to "keep process servers off his property."
Yet McDowell contended she had a legal right to be on the property. Arizona law says a person commits trespassing only if he is not "licensed, authorized or otherwise privileged" to be on the property. As a process server, at least one court in Arizona has ruled, McDowell is all three.
But Peoria police didn't know that. They didn't arrest anyone that day. Campbell ultimately accepted service of the complaint, and McDowell was allowed to leave the property.
But that wasn't the end of the incident. McDowell and her colleagues were furious that nothing had been done to Campbell. Campbell, they believed, could technically be arrested for kidnaping, a Class 2 felony. State law says "a person commits kidnaping by knowingly restraining another person with," among other things, the intent to "interfere with the performance of a governmental or political function." Serving legal papers, the process servers believe, is a vital function of the court.
More than a week after the incident, police reluctantly wrote a report charging Campbell with unlawful imprisonment, a lesser felony. Campbell wasn't arrested and fingerprinted until January, a month and a half after the incident.
From there, the case went to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. The original deputy county attorney assigned to the case, Ed Morgan, a 20-year veteran of the office, convinced a pro tem JP in Peoria that probable cause existed to try Campbell on the felony charge. Since justice courts hear only misdemeanors, the JP agreed and referred the case to Superior Court.
But the County Attorney's Office was not eager to prosecute Campbell. Campbell's lawyer, William Friedl, asked for reconsideration, saying that because Campbell "believed McDowell was a trespasser," he was justified in detaining her. Because Campbell called the police, didn't harm McDowell and released her after they arrived, Friedl said, any crime was a misdemeanor.
In an unusual move, Patricia Howe, the deputy county attorney who inherited the case, agreed with the defense attorney.
"I don't know why she did that," prosecutor Morgan says. "I wasn't very happy about it." With the state in agreement with the defense, a Superior Court judge shipped the case back to Peoria for another probable-cause hearing in April. On the day of that hearing, McDowell says, another deputy county attorney, Vernon Harris, told her he was going to offer Campbell a deal: Plead guilty and face a misdemeanor.
For Campbell, a reduction in the charge would be a major victory. A felony conviction could have jeopardized his restaurant's beer and wine license, along with his real estate license.
But Campbell snubbed the prosecutors' generous offer, refusing to cop a plea.
Incredibly, the County Attorney's Office responded by reducing the charge to a misdemeanor, anyway, thus wiping out the chance of getting a guilty plea.
"I was shocked," McDowell says. "One minute the county attorney is telling me they have a good felony case and the next they're dropping the charge to practically nothing." A trial on the misdemeanor charge of unlawful imprisonment was then set for June 30 in Peoria Justice Court. But come June 30, no justice could be found. Justice Pro Tem Johnson was supposed to have heard the case, but he couldn't make it. Peoria police officer Scott McAuley, who was supposed to testify against Campbell, didn't show, either. When he finally appeared in court, McAuley would joke that he missed the June 30 date because he had been running errands for his wife.
Campbell's trial was reset for August 9.
With the extra time, Campbell's attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case. Campbell also offered McDowell $1,500 to drop the whole thing, but she refused.
When McDowell arrived at the appointed hour for the August 9 trial, she discovered that deliberations had already been under way for a half-hour. But before she could tell what Campbell had put her through, Johnson pulled the plug.
"This whole matter has become so frivolous," Johnson pronounced. "I am dismissing this complaint."
Johnson--a former broadcaster for Channel 10--says he dismissed the case because of a pretrial memo filed by deputy county attorney Morgan, who was back on the case. In the memo, Morgan cited the laws governing process servers, and asserted that process servers have the same rights as deputy sheriffs when serving papers. But Johnson says he "totally disagrees" with the comparison, although he does believe process servers have the right to enter private property.
Although Johnson didn't hear the facts of the case, he says the incident sounded like "a pissing contest between two people." Despite the time and money that had already been expended on the case, Johnson says taxpayers should not pay to try it.
Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for County Attorney Richard Romley, cites the unlawful-imprisonment statute, and adds that because Campbell called the cops and released McDowell unharmed, the misdemeanor charge fit.
But the prosecutors' actions in the case against Campbell raised questions in the mind of Joe Abodeely, a former prosecutor whom McDowell turned to for advice.
"The County Attorney's Office, for some reason, desired not to prosecute this case diligently," Abodeely says. "If this guy wasn't such a prominent businessman, I bet you they would be prosecuting him to the fullest extent of the law.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.