With a recent ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero, Atherton resident Jon Buckheit has prevailed a second time in defending his right to move forward with his federal lawsuit against the town of Atherton and San Mateo County.
The $10 million lawsuit was filed in October 2009 as a result of Mr. Buckheit's arrest a year before at his home. He had called the police to intervene during a domestic violence incident involving his then-girlfriend and housemate, and even though he said he was the victim -- and had the injuries to prove it -- the police arrested him instead of the woman.
The county District Attorney's Office never prosecuted the case, and Mr. Buckheit in January won a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County superior court. But the arrest and its aftermath started a chain of revelations and accusations that have resulted in increased legal costs for the financially strapped town and closer scrutiny of the police department.
Mr. Buckheit has amended his original lawsuit twice, and his amendments name three officers involved in the arrest and Councilman Jerry Carlson as defendants. Mr. Carlson, he charges, opposed his appointment to the town's Finance Committee in retaliation for his lawsuit against the town.
After the lawsuit was amended the first time, Atherton and the county tried and failed to have it dismissed last spring. Mr. Buckheit amended the lawsuit a second time in June, and the county filed a motion to dismiss that version of the lawsuit without a trial.
In a Sept. 24 ruling, Judge Spero allowed the lawsuit to proceed, rejecting most of the county's claims in its motion while upholding several others.
Among the assertions in the lawsuit, Mr. Buckheit maintains that his arrest instead of his girlfriend's was the result of a county policy of discriminating against men when domestic abuse incidents are reported "so that adult males are much more likely to be arrested and prosecuted, regardless of the true circumstances or facts."
The lawsuit also cites the county's role in denying him a copy of the police report of the arrest, although the report was essential for his pursuit of a court declaration of factual innocence.
(The town of Atherton also refused to give Mr. Buckheit the police report, and has already paid him $8,000 for his attorney's fees after he had to sue for the document.)
Mr. Buckheit added complaints to the lawsuit after the court hearings leading to his declaration of factual innocence. Those complaints centered on the addition of a false charge of child abuse in the police report, and the admission under oath by police officer Tony Dennis that he hadn't included that charge in the original report.
As a result of Mr. Dennis' statement, the county District Attorney's Office is investigating whether the police report had been falsified, and by whom.
Mr. Buckheit has opposed turning the investigation over to the district attorney, maintaining that it is "totally inappropriate" for the county, which is a defendant in his lawsuit, to be involved. "The D.A. has a vested interest in not exposing the wrongdoing," he said last spring.
Rather, he said, an outside agency such as the state attorney general's office or the FBI should investigate the matter.
The investigation is stalled because Mr. Buckheit has refused the county investigator's request to release the police report, which was sealed by the court as part of the factual innocence declaration. He said he would turn the report over to another agency if it were assigned to investigate, but he wouldn't agree to unseal it for "a conflicted party."
Meanwhile, a mandatory mediation session is set for next month between the plaintiff and defendants, Mr. Buckheit said. "I'm going in with an open mind, but given their failure to try to correct this thing -- which could have been solved very easily and very cheaply -- I'm not optimistic" about a settlement, he said.