News


Atherton: Buckheit lawsuit saga appears to be over

A May 20 federal appeals court decision is likely to close the door on the four-and-a-half-year fight involving an Atherton resident's lawsuit against the town of Atherton, three of its officers, and the county over the resident's 2008 arrest.

The ruling overturns a 2013 federal court decision that Jon Buckheit must pay San Mateo County $145,434 in attorney fees because his claims against the county in his 2009 lawsuit were frivolous.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Count of Appeals found otherwise: "We conclude that the connection between Buckheit's claims and the County is 'tenuous, but not frivolous'," the judges wrote.

Mr. Buckheit's lawsuit stemmed from his October 2008 arrest after he called Atherton police out to his home, reporting that he had been the victim of domestic violence by his then-girlfriend. Although he was taken into custody and prohibited from returning to his home for several days, he was never charged, and later was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court.

In including the county in his lawsuit, Mr. Buckheit alleged that the town and county had entered into an agreement in which the county would create what he believed to be a discriminatory policy on dealing with domestic violence accusations. He also alleged that the county conspired with the town to retaliate against him after he petitioned the court for a determination of factual innocence. The retaliation involved refusing to provide a copy of the police report on the incident, he said.

The lawsuit was dismissed by Federal Court Judge Joseph Spero in April 2012, and the judge granted the county's petition for attorney fees.

Mr. Buckheit filed an appeal challenging the fee ruling as well as Judge Spero's rejection of his claim that the county violated his First Amendment rights by withholding a copy of the police report.

The appeals court judges wrote that they could see "no evidence that the County's district attorney had a copy of the police report when Buckheit requested it from him. Nor is there evidence that the County's actions were motivated by retaliatory intent. Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary that the County tried to help Buckheit get a copy of his police report but could not persuade the Town of Atherton to produce it."

But the judges sided with Mr. Buckheit on the fee issue, noting that at issue was a civil rights claim, and that a civil rights defendant (in this case, the county) may be granted attorney fees "only where the action brought is found to be unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious." Although they agreed with the county that Mr. Buckheit's claims were "extremely weak," they disagreed that there was "no legal or factual basis" for them, they wrote.

"The County acknowledged at oral argument that it had a role in the formation of the domestic violence policy followed by the officers who arrested Buckheit," the ruling said. "A challenge to that policy's provisions, as interpreted by the arresting officers, impelled Buckheit's suit."

The judges also noted that awarding fees to defendants who prevail in a civil rights lawsuit could discourage people from filing such lawsuits, which could undercut "the efforts of Congress to promote the vigorous enforcement of the civil rights laws," they wrote.

Brian Wong, deputy county counsel, said county officials had sought attorney fees because "we take the taxpayers' resources seriously," but the county "is unlikely to appeal the decision."

While pleased with the judges' ruling on fees, Mr. Buckheit said he continues to believe the county retaliated against him in not producing the police report. Regarding the county's decision to seek attorney fees, officials "wanted to punish someone who challenged the system ... and they wanted to discourage anyone else from doing it," Mr. Buckheit said.

Unless the county appeals the decision, he said, the years-long saga is over. "Not in my memory, but legally speaking."

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2014 at 8:58 am

When you think about story, think about how different this could have turned out if Jon Buckheit was given a copy of his own police report by his own police department the first time he went in person and asked for it.

How different it would have been if District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe investigated and charged a police officer once he had personal knowledge of a crime being committed against Mr. Jon Buckheit.

Just a couple of things to think about.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on May 27, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Congratulations John on your perseverance and your patience. Your lawsuit has helped to protect the right of all citizens to seek redress from government without fear of financial penalty.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2014 at 12:40 pm

I am glad that this has finally been resolved fairly. Best wishes to the victim, Mr. Buckheit.

I am sorry to be so retro here, but I've never understood *why* Buckheit was arrested when he called the police and he was the victim. I understand that that is rather unusual for a man to call. What happened to the girlfriend? Was she ever held accountable for her actions? Can anyone point me toward a news source that goes into detail about the original incident?



 +   Like this comment
Posted by MLK
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 27, 2014 at 2:23 pm

To Hmmm, here is an article regarding the investigation of the Atherton police department for misconduct after falsifying the police report detailing Buckheit's arrest:

Atherton asks D.A. to investigate police misconduct charge | News | Almanac Online |
Web Link

I never saw the results of that investigation, I wonder if anyone knows how it came out? After rereading news of the scandal with Greg Munks, and the fact that he was never properly investigated or called to account for his misconduct, I'm beginning to get the impression that some people in this county are above the law.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Renee Batti
news editor of The Almanac
on May 27, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Renee Batti is a registered user.

Here's another article that might shed some light on the arrest.

Web Link

From the article:
"The domestic violence incident occurred on the night of Oct. 19, 2008. Mr. Buckheit called the police for help, reporting that he had been assaulted by his then-girlfriend, who lived at the residence. Although Mr. Buckheit was the person with visible injuries, he was arrested. The District Attorney's Office soon after decided not to file charges after reviewing the case.

Months later, when Mr. Buckheit obtained a copy of the police report after suing the town to get it, he was shocked to see that, in addition to the claim that he had assaulted his girlfriend, the report included a charge of assault against her son.

In January of this year, Mr. Buckheit was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court. Mr. Buckheit's Dec. 1 letter to Chief Guerra comes nearly one year after Atherton police officer Tony Dennis testified during the factual-innocence court proceedings that, although the police report bore his signature, the section recommending criminal charges for assaulting the child was not written by him.

During the trial, Judge Mark Forcum stated that "there's absolutely no basis to believe that Mr. Buckheit ever laid a finger on the child," according to the court transcript."

Mr. Buckheit has maintained throughout this episode that he was arrested, even though he had visible physical injuries, because Atherton police follow a policy designed by the county that ultimately favors women in domestic disputes between men and women.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by MLK
a resident of Atherton: other
on May 27, 2014 at 2:55 pm

To Hmmm, I realize the article I linked doesn't explain why Jon Buckheit was arrested after he called the police to report that he was the victim of domestic violence. I read that his girlfriend had a child who was with her when the police arrived, and that to arrest and detain the mother would have meant waiting for child protective services to come and take custody of the child. It was late in the day, and they would have had a long wait under those circumstances. To be charitable, the police were saving the child the trauma of being separated from it's mother, to be uncharitable, the police were saving themselves some time & trouble. I don't know the truth, but in the end, they falsified the police report, and that's illegal. None of the adults in this scenario were covering themselves in glory from my point of view.


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 27, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

MLK:

what you didn't mention is that it was determined who falsified the report and after Guerra was forced to "resign" the officer that falsified the report "retired."

Through it all our illustrious corrupt DA knew about this and yet did noting to charge the officer with falsifying a police report. Anyone wonder why we have corruption in this county?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

My thanks to everyone who offered the missing info to me. I do recall the child being there, and I do recall Buckheit being wrongly arrested. I know that removing a child from their parent is traumatic, but this happens all of the time when men are arrested for various violent offenses. To create an arrest record for an innocent person who was a victim is appalling.

I am truly trying, late in the game, to understand the mindset of idiots who would arrest a man after he was assaulted by his partner, if he in turn didn't commit an assault. It is amazingly unintelligent to think that they'd get away with this type of error. Of course, I see profiling a based on race and gender, but this is a whole other level of lazy meets corrupt. And obviously, factoring in our DA, no wonder the authorities thought that they could get away with this.

I wish Mr. Buckheit a peaceful, fair future.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on May 27, 2014 at 9:41 pm

pogo is a registered user.

Congratulations to Mr. Buckheit, of course.

But I'd like you all to imagine if you did not have the financial resources or fortitude to pursue this as Mr. Buckheit did.

What those APD officers did was wrong on several levels.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on May 28, 2014 at 11:34 am

Michael G. Stogner is a registered user.

Pogo is right,

"But I'd like you all to imagine if you did not have the financial resources or fortitude to pursue this as Mr. Buckheit did."

One thing for sure you would have is an arrest record for something you didn't do.

Thank You Jon Buckheit for shining the light on a dark subject.


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