The Arizona Court of Appeals today upheld a Maricopa County judge's contempt-of-court ruling against a sheriff's detention officer who lifted legal papers from a criminal-defense attorney in open court and had them copied.
Gary Donahoe, who until recently was the county's presiding criminal judge, held the detention officer, Adam Stoddard, in indirect civil contempt after the officer's well-publicized actions.
The videotaped incident became quite a hit on YouTube (123,000 viewings). That's DO Stoddard to the far right of the prisoner, just after he handed the file to a sheriff's deputy.
We wrote a cover story about the troubling situation late last year.
Here it is.
Finding the 25-year-old Stoddard in contempt of court was pretty much a no-brainer. But Judge Donahoe's sanctions against the officer seemed curious at the time:
The judge ordered Stoddard incarcerated unless the officer arranged a news conference at the plaza outside the Central Court Building in downtown Phoenix, where he was "to give [defense lawyer Joanne] Cuccia a sinercre verbal and written apology for invadng her defense file and for the damage that his conduct may have caused to her professional reputation."
Donahoe also required Stoddard to prepare a press release in advance of the media event, and to send it by fax and e-mail to the Valley's news outlets.
But Stoddard declined to apologize and reported to jail, where he spent nine days (in relative comfort, according to authorities) before his attorneys filed a special action with the appellate court.
Among other arguments, the officer's attorneys alleged that Donahoe had violated Stoddard's due-process rights during the contempt hearing, and that forcing him to apologize for his wrongdoing at a press conference violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
Interestingly, Stoddard never did challenge Donahoe's ruling that he had committed contempt by pilfering the attorney/client files.
On the due-process argument (Stoddard claimed that Judge Donahoe had barred him from presenting all relevant evidence in his defense), the court countered, "Stoddard was given a full and fair opportunity to explain his actions."
The appellate judges noted that "Stoddard testified that he read the documents [in Cuccia's file], which were letters from Defendant to Cuccia, and that he did not find anything in the letters which were indicative of a future crime, an illegal communication, that Cuccia did anything wrong, or was a security risk."
But the court ruled that Donahoe's sanction against Stoddard failed legally "because [it] does not attempt to remedy the disruption to the sentencing hearing and/or ensure Stoddard will not repeat his illegal acts."
The judges also said they could find "no evidence" that attorney Cuccia's reputation was "tarnished by the ordeal" (Cuccia would strongly disagree with that), even though Judge Donahoe focused on that angle in his ruling.
The panel concluded that, instead of ordering Stoddard to hold a press conference, Donahoe "might have required Stoddard to receive additional training in courtroom decorum, including the nature, purpose, and sanctity of the attorney-client privilege.
Donahoe also could have compelled Stoddard to tell the sentencing judge in the underlying case what the officer admitted to at the contempt hearing: "`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 decideing to invade Cuccia's file."
The appellate panel (Maurice Portley, Lawrence Winthrop, and Margaret Downie) remanded the case to Superior Court "for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
In all, a defeat for Stoddard and, by proxy, his boss Arpaio, but tempered by the smackdown of Judge Donahoe's quirky notion of how to sanction the young officer.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.