Gavel, scales of justice and law books

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit on Monday allowed two claims against a Denver prosecutor and sheriff’s deputy to go forward stemming from their conduct in a 10-year-old criminal case.

In 2010, Dean Carbajal violated a protection order for his former romantic partner on several occasions, culminating in a visit to her house in which he held a knife and threatened to kill himself. A jury found him guilty of 17 counts that included criminal trespass, harassment by stalking, and kidnapping. Initially, the Denver district attorney’s office brought five cases against Carbajal in county court. Only one ended up transferring to the district court, where the prosecutors then amended that case to include the dismissed charges.

Prosecutors then added charges in February 2011 related to a burglary. They filed contempt charges against Carbajal’s mother and a friend when they did not comply with a subpoena to appear as witnesses. Carbajal contended that the district attorney’s office knew he was innocent of the burglary accusation, and called their behavior toward the witnesses “malicious prosecution and [abuse of] the criminal process”. Carbajal sued in federal court, and of his claims, only an excessive force claim was allowed to continue against a Denver sheriff’s deputy for alleged physical abuse and harassment in retaliation for civil litigation.

Writing for the three-member appeals panel, circuit Judge Nancy L. Moritz disagreed with Carbajal's representation of the burglary charge, saying that he had not proven “how [prosecutors] conspired to fabricate probable cause” or manufactured evidence. She also pointed out that Carbajal had not explained how the detective allegedly misrepresented the facts of the case either. Moritz upheld the dismissal of a related “abuse of process” allegation, declining to review the claim on its merits.

However, she reversed the lower court’s dismissal of Carbajal’s contempt claim against his prosecutor based on the doctrine of immunity. The prosecutor had sought arrest warrants for the witnesses, but the district court found she was “entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity for those actions because they were ‘intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.’” Moritz disagreed with this application of immunity, and ordered that the district court consider the prosecutor’s statements in weighing whether she violated the witnesses’ constitutional rights in her handling of the subpoena. 

The appeals court also allowed the excessive force claim against the sheriff's deputy to continue, while granting immunity to District Attorney Beth McCann and other named defendants.

The case is Victoria Carbajal, et al. v. Beth McCann, et al.

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