Apr. 13, 2020
U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark of Kansas City, Missouri
Judicial immunity does not completely protect a Missouri judge in a lawsuit accusing him of jailing and drug testing three courtroom observers, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark of Kansas City, Missouri, ruled last week that the three people may sue for a declaratory judgment in a suit alleging unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment and violation of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights as courtroom observers. The suit also claims that there was a 14th Amendment violation.
Douglas Gaston, Associate Circuit Judge in Texas County, Missouri
Ketchmark said the three plaintiffs could sue Judge Douglas Gaston for prospective declaratory relief because of a substantial likelihood of future injury but not for retroactive declaratory relief because of his judicial immunity.
The observers were in the courtroom because of a custody hearing for a minor child, “K.C.” The child’s paternal grandparents had filed a custody petition for temporary guardianship alleging that the child’s parents were unfit.
The observers were the child’s maternal grandparents, Norma and Arthur Rogers, as well as William Hale, who gave the Rogers’ a ride to court, according to Ketchmark’s opinion.
Gaston had appeared irritated by Arthur Rogers’ answers to his questions about whether the couple had a lawyer, according to the ACLU.
At one point, Gaston said he had sworn statements that K.C. is in immediate danger. Arthur Rogers protested, saying, “That’s just not true.”
Gaston told Arthur Rogers that he shouldn’t interrupt. “You do it again and there’s a penalty for that,” Gaston said. “It involves a cell with bars.”
After ordering drug testing, Gaston told Arthur Rogers to “just come right back” and asked him whether he had something to say.
“No, sir! I’m—nothing,” Arthur Rogers replied.
“Well, you just bought yourself 24 hours in the Texas County Jail for that look,” Gaston said. “Now anything else you wanna say or any looks you want to give?”
Norma Rogers and Hale were detained for nearly eight hours and restrained to a metal bench. Arthur Rogers was detained overnight.
The drug tests came back positive, but it was apparently because of their prescription medication, according to Ketchmark. Gaston has since recused himself from the custody case, although he is presiding in a criminal proceeding involving the child’s mother.
The suit alleges that Gaston “is prone to losing his temper,” and he has also ordered the detention and drug testing of a nonparty in an unrelated matter.
“Given the alleged policy and practices of Judge Gaston, there exists a substantial likelihood plaintiffs would be chilled of future protected activity under the First Amendment,” Ketchmark wrote. “For instance, plaintiffs may be chilled from attending hearings, a trial, or potential sentencing in the criminal matter because of Judge Gaston’s alleged policies. Therefore, plaintiffs’ claims for prospective declaratory relief are not moot, and will not be dismissed at this time.”
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— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) April 1, 2020
On September 30, 2019, the ACLU of Missouri sued Texas County, Missouri associate circuit judge Douglas Gaston and several deputy sheriffs. Together, the judge and sheriffs detained, restrained, and drug tested three people without cause.
In June 2017, Norma and Arthur Rogers went to a proceeding in open court concerning their granddaughter’s custody. They were not parties to the case. They intended to observe the hearing and—if an opportunity arose—to offer to care for their granddaughter. Their son-in-law, William Hale, was there too, since he had given the child’s parents a ride.
The judge for the case was Douglas Gaston. Many in Texas County know Judge Gaston for his temper and for mixing his personal opinions with the law.
After the proceeding began, Judge Gaston noticed Mr. and Mrs. Rogers for the first time. He began questioning Mr. Rogers aggressively from the bench and took offense at his responses.
At Judge Gaston’s direction, without a warrant or probable cause, a deputy sheriff took Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, as well as Mr. Hale, into custody for drug testing. Law enforcement escorted them to the county jail, where officers forced the family to urinate and cuffed them to a bench for hours. Because of his ankle cuff, Mr. Hale, who suffers from diabetes, developed an ulcer on his foot. After this episode, a portion of his foot required amputation. It is still susceptible to frequent infection.
Mr. Rogers spent the night in jail. Judge Gaston justified it thusly: “You just bought yourself 24 hours in the Texas County Jail for that look.”
“No judge is above the law,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri. “Judge Gaston, of all people, should know this.”
Judge Gaston founded the Constitution Project, a program that introduces high school students to basic principles of constitutional law.
“Detaining, drug testing, and restraining this family who had come to observe open court violated the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments,” Rothert said. “Mr. Hale should not have suffered an amputation. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers should not have been imprisoned and humiliated. Missourians deserve fair treatment, no matter who they are or where they live.”