Ninth Circuit Upholds Verdict Against Sect-Run Arizona Town

Court House News/August 26, 2019

By Amanda Pampuro

An Arizona town that let a Mormon sect run the government deprived non-church members of their constitutional rights, a Ninth Circuit panel held Monday, affirming a federal judge’s 2016 finding.

“We conclude that because of the overwhelming evidence that Colorado City deprived non-FLDS residents of their constitutional rights, it is more probable than not that the court would have reached the same verdict on the United States’ [Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act] claim,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Milan Smith Jr., in a 21-page opinion.

The U.S. government sued the towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale City, Utah, in 2012, for letting overseers of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) appoint city leader and marshals.

Following a 44-day trial in 2016, U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, a Ronald Reagan appointee, awarded a total of $2.2 million to apostates denied access to water utilities as well as a former city councilman wrongly arrested and charged with felony theft.

Hildale City withdrew from this appeal in 2018, leaving the 4,857-person Arizona town alone in its argument against the court’s use of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Smith noted the act was passed “address systematic patterns or practices of police misconduct.”

Colorado City argued the law didn’t apply since the town didn’t have an official policy on the books committing it to work on behalf of the church.

Nevertheless, the FLDS was handpicking city marshals to “ignore violations of the law – such as underage marriage, unlicensed drug distributions, and food stamp fraud – by FLDS members,” Smith wrote in a summary of the trial.

Law enforcement on the town payroll helped church leaders duck the FBI, kept tabs on unfamiliar license plates that rolled through, hid church leader Warren Jeffs from the FBI for more than a year and destroyed evidence against him.

Moreover, the marshal’s office “selectively enforce[ed] the law based upon religion,” arresting several non-FLDS members without probable cause.

The church also employed its own security detail nicknamed the God Squad.

Colorado City also argued that statements made by FLDS leaders should have been discounted by the court as mere heresy, but Smith said doing so would not have changed the case’s outcome.

But Smith, a George W. Bush appointee noted in his opinion that “the United States presented extensive evidence at trial that supported the existence of a conspiracy between the church and the towns,” including that “Jeffs excommunicated the towns’ leaders who did not follow his orders [and] FLDS leaders determined who would occupy the towns’ government positions such as mayor, City Council members, and police officers.”

Smith was joined in the opinion by two Bill Clinton appointees, U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins and Chief U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn of the Northern District of Texas, sitting by designation.

Spanning the Arizona-Utah border, the Short Creek Community follows the teachings of Warren Jeffs, whom they consider a prophet. The FLDS should not be confused with the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which excommunicated many of the sect members.

Jeffs is imprisoned in Texas for life plus 20 years for the sexual abuse of two young girls he had taken as his “spiritual wives.”

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