Having persuaded a jury that the twin communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah discriminated against individuals who did not share the religious beliefs of town officials, the Justice Department wants to disband the Marshal’s Office that serves those towns. It will rely on expert witnesses in an effort to persuade a federal judge to grant that remedy.
The FLDS and Warren Jeffs
Years ago, members of a polygamous sect of the Mormon Church broke away from the mainstream religion and took up residence in isolated communities. Two such communities are the sister cities of Hildale and Colorado City, known collectively as Short Creek.
The communities have been tightly controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Before his imprisonment, Warren Jeffs, a former president of the FLDS, claimed that nearly all of the land surrounding Short Creek was held by a church trust.
In 2004, Jeffs expelled the mayor of Colorado City and 19 other men who, in Jeffs’ view, failed to follow church doctrine. He reassigned their wives and children to other men in the community.
In 2006, after spending some time as a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Jeffs was arrested. He was charged with multiple crimes in various jurisdictions. In 2011, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Texas for two counts of sexual assault of a child.
Justice Department Lawsuit
After Jeffs was sentenced, the Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against government officials in the two towns, alleging that the city violated the rights of non-FLDS members by discriminating against them in the provision of housing and city services. Before the case went to trial, community officials settled discrimination claims under the Fair Housing Act by agreeing to pay $1.6 million.
At the conclusion of the trial, a jury found that the police departments in the two cities “followed, harassed and intimidated nonbelievers.” Police behavior included subjecting non-FLDS members to unconstitutional detentions and arrests. The jury also found that city officials denied city services, including building permits and water hookups, to non-FLDS members.
The claims about improper policing were brought under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That law permits the Justice Department to address patterns and practices of police misconduct. Since the law does not authorize a jury trial, the jury’s findings about unlawful police actions are considered advisory. In the next stage of the trial, the presiding federal judge will decide whether constitutional violations occurred and, if so, what remedy to order.
Among other remedies, the Justice Department wants the court to disband the Colorado City Town Marshal’s Office. In support of that request, the Justice Department intends to call law enforcement officers as expert witnesses.
The Justice Department proposes to have the sheriff’s departments of Washington County, Utah and Mohave County, Arizona take over law enforcement duties in the two communities. Law enforcement officials from those agencies are expected to provide expert testimony regarding the ability of their departments to handle that task. They will also testify about the difficulty their departments have encountered when trying to work cooperatively with the Marshal’s Office.
The city government will argue that disbanding its law enforcement organization is a drastic and unnecessary remedy. To counter that argument, the Justice Department plans to call former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris as an expert to explain why attempts to reform the Marshal’s Office would be costly and ineffective.
The Justice Department also wants to call Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap to describe his experience with the Marshal’s Office. Belnap is expected to offer expert opinions about the need to disband the Marshal’s Office in order “to ensure constitutional policing in the Cities.”
The town government plans to call Colorado City Marshal Jerry Darger to provide his expert opinion that disbanding the Marshal’s Office would have a negative impact on the residents of the two communities. In his opinion, the two sheriff’s departments have failed to provide needed assistance to the towns when they were asked to do so in the past.
The court has scheduled a hearing to take evidence on the discrimination remedy in late October. It will probably issue a decision shortly after the hearing concludes.