An Atherton resident who said he was wrongfully arrested in 2008 on domestic violence charges was exonerated Jan. 14 by a San Mateo County Superior Court judge. Now, he's publicly calling for an investigation into the Atherton Police Department's practices.
Jonathan Buckheit, who won a declaration of factual innocence from the judge, is pursuing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Atherton and two of the town's police officers, saying that his civil rights were violated by the 2008 arrest.
"I was falsely arrested in a domestic dispute in which I called 911," Mr. Buckheit told The Almanac.
No charges were brought against Mr. Buckheit in the domestic violence call that involved Mr. Buckheit and a woman, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
"It was not sufficient (evidence) to prosecute, but it was not a case where we would agree to declaration of factual innocence," Mr. Wagstaffe said.
When Mr. Buckheit sought a copy of the police report from his arrest, both the Atherton Police Department and the San Mateo County District Attorney's office refused to give it to him, he said. Then-city Attorney Marc Hynes told him he was not entitled to the police report, Mr. Buckheit said.
"I was the one who received physical injuries during the incident, so I was entitled to it," he said.
Eight months later, Mr. Buckheit said he finally got the report, but only after he filed a lawsuit to get it. He was awarded almost $8,000 in legal fees and damages in that case, he said.
"The most disturbing thing is that they were trying to block my access to even apply for factual innocence," Mr. Buckheit said. "If there's no police report, you can't argue with the judge that you're factually innocent."
He asked the Atherton City Council to call for an investigation, saying that one of the officers involved testified in court that his police report had been altered.
"Order (city manager Jerry) Gruber and (chief Mike) Guerra to refer the report-tampering to the appropriate agency not the San Mateo County District Attorney," Mr. Buckheit said at the Jan. 20 council meeting.
Chief Guerra told The Almanac he couldn't comment on the situation, as there is a pending lawsuit, but did say, "We take those things very seriously, and we're looking into Mr. Buckheit's (allegations)."
A factual innocence petition is a relatively rare legal procedure. The petitioner, in this case Mr. Buckheit, must prove that there is no reasonable cause to believe that he or she committed a crime. Once granted, the arrest records are expunged and the case sealed.
"I've been totally exonerated," he said. "The judge said he was deeply disturbed by (the handling of the case)."
According to Mr. Wagstaffe, the DA's office "vigorously opposed" the factual innocence petition, but that the judge saw things differently.
"Judge Mark Forcum said the victim did have bruises, but that you can't say for sure where she got them," said Mr. Wagstaffe.
Mr. Buckheit said he's not thrilled about going public with his situation, but that he had no choice.
"What's happening isn't right, and it shouldn't just get swept under the rug," he said.