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United States v. Town of Colorado City

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

August 26, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Town of Colorado City, Arizona; Twin City Water Authority, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued and Submitted April 18, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Arizona No. 3:12-cv-08123-HRH H. Russel Holland, District Judge, Presiding

          Jeffrey C. Matura (argued) and Melissa England, Barrett & Matura P.C., Scottsdale, Arizona; R. Blake Hamilton, Durham Jones & Pinegar P.C., Salt Lake City, Utah; for Defendants-Appellants.

          Christine A. Monta (argued) and Thomas E. Chandler, Attorneys; John M. Gore, Acting Assistant Attorney General; Appellate Section, Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.; for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before: MICHAEL DALY HAWKINS and MILAN D. SMITH, JR., Circuit Judges, and BARBARA M. G. LYNN, [*] District Judge.

         SUMMARY **

         Civil Rights

         The panel affirmed the district court's judgment in favor of the United States in its action against the Town of Colorado City, Arizona brought under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 34 U.S.C. § 12601, which prohibits any governmental authority from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or government agents that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

         The United States brought a civil action against the municipal defendants and their utility providers alleging a pattern or practice of discrimination against residents who were not members of Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The essential allegation of the United States was that defendants functioned as an arm of the Church and conspired with Church leaders to use municipal resources to advance Church interests.

         The panel held that, in holding that defendants violated § 12601, the district court correctly interpreted the statute to allow for respondeat superior liability. The panel rejected the assertion that § 12601 requires the United States to demonstrate that the Towns instituted an official municipal policy of violating residents' constitutional rights and therefore declined to extend the holding in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) to claims pursuant to § 12601. The panel held that, had Congress wished to eliminate respondeat superior liability under § 12601, it could have easily done so with explicit statutory language. Its decision not to do so suggested that it intended for § 12601, like most civil rights statutes, to allow for respondeat superior liability.

         The panel held that it was not necessary to address Colorado City's arguments about the district court's Fourth Amendment-related factual findings because, even if those arguments were correct, the error was harmless. The panel further held that the district court did not err in admitting the statements of Church leaders under the co-conspirator exception to the rule against hearsay. The panel held that taken together, the evidence was sufficient to establish that defendants conspired with Church members to advance the Church's illicit objectives. While certain other statements admitted by the district court did not fall under the co-conspirator exception, the district court did not err in admitting them because they were otherwise admissible. The panel concluded that because of the overwhelming evidence that Colorado City deprived non-Church residents of their constitutional rights, it was more probable than not that the court would have reached the same verdict on the United States' § 12601 claim even if the challenged statements had been excluded.

          OPINION

          M. SMITH, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         When the United States suspected the Town of Colorado City, Arizona (Colorado City) and Hildale City, Utah (collectively, the Towns) of engaging in a pattern or practice of violating the constitutional rights of residents who were not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS or the Church), it sued the Towns pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 34 U.S.C. § 12601 (formerly codified at 42 U.S.C. § 14141).[1] After a 44-day trial, a jury returned an advisory verdict finding the Towns liable. The district court handed down a judgment holding that the Towns violated § 12601, and granted injunctive relief against the Towns.

         Colorado City[2] appeals the district court's decision on three grounds, all of which fail. The district court correctly interpreted § 12601 when it concluded that the statute does not require an official municipal policy of violating constitutional rights in order for the United States to prevail. Colorado City's arguments about the district court's factual findings, even if they are correct, do not entitle it to relief because the district court's judgment is supported on other grounds. The district court did not err in admitting several statements that Colorado City contends were hearsay. We affirm the district court.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Straddling the Utah and Arizona border, the Short Creek Community is a religious settlement composed of the Towns. Most residents are FLDS members and follow the teachings of Warren Jeffs, whom they sustain as a prophet and leader of the Church. Since becoming the head of the Church in 2002, Jeffs has promulgated a strict set of rules for FLDS members, such as prohibitions on: vacations, toys, attendance at public schools, and displays of affection between husbands and wives.

         The United States brought a civil action against the Towns and their municipal utility providers, Twin City Water Authority and Twin City Power, alleging a pattern or practice of discrimination against non-FLDS residents. The essential allegation of the United States was that the Towns functioned as an arm of the Church and conspired with FLDS leaders to use the Towns' municipal resources to advance Church interests. The complaint stated a claim against the Towns pursuant to § 12601 for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because § 12601 does not provide a right to a jury trial, the parties agreed that a jury would render only an advisory verdict.

         At trial, the United States argued that FLDS leaders selected the Towns' leaders and members of the Colorado City Marshal's Office (Marshals), which served as the police department for the Towns. The United States offered testimony that the FLDS "ran the [Towns'] government" and that the Towns' government "was a part of the [C]hurch." It also offered evidence demonstrating that FLDS leaders instructed local government officials on how to perform their jobs in a way that advanced the Church's interests. Marshals, for example, ignored violations of the law-such as underage marriage, unlicensed drug distribution, and food stamp fraud-by FLDS members.

         The Marshal's Office worked closely with FLDS leaders. Marshals helped FLDS leaders evade service of process by the FBI, and ran computer checks of license plates of unfamiliar cars, when asked to do so by FLDS leaders. Cooperation between the Church and the Towns even extended to sharing tangible resources. For example, the Marshal's Office provided equipment such as tasers and night-vision binoculars to Church Security, the FLDS's private security force.

         The Marshal's Office also helped Jeffs after he became a fugitive. Less than three years after Jeffs became head of the Church, the United States secured a warrant for his arrest on charges of sexual misconduct with children. The FBI sought the help of the Marshal's Office to locate Jeffs, but the Marshals did not cooperate; instead, they hindered the FBI's investigation and helped Jeffs hide for over a year. The Marshals also provided Jeffs with financial assistance and information on the activities of federal law enforcement to help him evade capture. The Marshals even helped destroy evidence of the crimes for which Jeffs was accused by burglarizing a former FLDS member's business.

         The United States also presented evidence that members of the Marshal's Office discriminated against non-FLDS residents. It contended that the Marshals failed to provide effective police protection to residents who were not FLDS members. One non-FLDS resident testified, for example, that a Marshal drove to his home, walked out of his car, and "just came over and grabbed my arm and [] bent it up around my back." Although the resident explained that ...


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