PROVO — Almost two years after Elaine Damron was cited for contempt of court and ordered to spend 24 hours in jail, her contempt conviction has been thrown out.
The decision was made by 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock, who found this week that Saratoga Springs Justice Court Judge Keith Stoney violated the woman's right to due process.
"Judge Stoney's error was egregious and its consequences were severe," Laycock wrote of judge's actions on Aug. 27, 2010.
Damron was in Stoney's courtroom on that day in support of her son, who was asking that misdemeanor charges stemming from a loose dog incident be dismissed. A court volunteer noticed that Damron was recording the court proceedings on her cellphone and notified a security officer, who informed her she couldn't have her phone out. Damron pushed stop and stored her phone in her purse, Laycock wrote.
The woman pulled it out again three minutes later, but stored it again when the officer approached.
Soon after, the hearing was halted after prosecutor Lindsay Jarvis told the judge she had been informed someone was recording the proceedings.
"The judge ordered (the security officer) to take Ms. Damron into custody and to take her cellphone from her," Laycock wrote.
Damron was handcuffed for an hour until she was brought back into Stoney's courtroom where she admitted she had recorded the hearing, but only once and not after she was told it was prohibited. Other witnesses spoke to the judge "informally without being sworn in" and said they had seen Damron make two recordings. The phone was never brought into the courtroom to check for recordings, Laycock wrote.
The attorney for Damron's son asked that the woman be given a warning. Jarvis asked for five days in jail and a $500 fine, Laycock wrote. Stoney found Damron was in contempt and sentenced her to five days in jail, but suspended all but 24 hours of the sentence. He also ordered Damron to forfeit her phone.
The woman was "immediately taken to the Utah County Jail in handcuffs, where she spent exactly 24 hours in custody," Laycock wrote. It was later determined that there was only one, 19-minute recording on Damron's phone.
Laycock wrote that this evidence disproved a claim by Stoney that he saw Damron make a recording. She repeatedly found that the testimony he later gave in her courtroom "lacked credibility."
Laycock found that while the woman could have seen a poster in the courthouse reading "no cell phones allowed," she said court volunteers do not enforce general cellphone use. Laycock also said she did not believe her fellow judge's claim that he had warned the audience in his court that day that no recordings were allowed.
"The court concludes that Judge Stoney erred when he found Ms. Damron in contempt," Laycock wrote. "The court is not persuaded that Ms. Damron's alleged contempt was committed in Judge Stoney's immediate view and presence (as required by Utah code)."
Laycock found "beyond reasonable doubt" that Damron did not intentionally fail or refuse to obey Stoney when it came to recording in the courtroom, saying "(Damron) never heard such an order and Judge Stoney never gave such an order."
Laycock wrote that Stoney failed to abide by Utah laws and should have allowed the woman to have an evidentiary hearing.
"As it is, the court did not find his version of the facts credible and now concludes that Ms. Damron should not have been held in contempt, should not have been sentenced to jail for 24 hours, and should not have forfeited her cellphone," Laycock wrote, calling Damron's arrest "an illegal conviction."
"The loss of liberty which ensued from this incident cannot be viewed as incidental, nor can a court's responsibility to act swiftly, yet carefully, to maintain courtroom decorum and due process be underestimated," Laycock wrote. "Judge Stoney acted swiftly, but not carefully, and in so doing denied Ms. Damron her 14th Amendment right to due process."
She vacated the woman's conviction for criminal contempt.
"The court concludes that Ms. Damron is not only eligible for the relief requested, but that she is entitled to the relief requested."
Gregory Stewart, who represented Damron in the case, said he was happy with Laycock's decision.
"I think it's a complete vindication for my client and everything she's claimed for the last few years — that she didn't do anything wrong and the way she was treated was in violation of all the rules and law," Stewart said. "Her name is cleared and she's made as whole as possible."
He said his client, who never had a prior criminal history, didn't seek any damages. He noted that judges are immune from civil lawsuits in most cases and Damron has a complaint pending with the Judicial Conduct Commission.
Since the incident, the Utah Legislature passed a bill requiring that all justice courts implement a recording system.
Stoney recently challenged a reprimand handed down by the commission alleging that he issued a $10,000, cash-only warrant against a woman for a minor traffic violation because she allegedly mistreated the judge's clerks. The judge told the Utah Supreme Court that it was a simple mistake and the high court is expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.