By Mark Flatten
March 6, 2019
According to a recently released city personnel investigation, Scottsdale City Prosecutor Caron Close berated and bullied people in front of others. She played favorites among her employees, giving certain people special treatment while singling others out for punishment, and creating a “toxic” environment rife with fear of retaliation. The results of the review prompted Close’s retirement, effective March 18.
If Close treated her employees so aggressively, imagine what defendants that she and her office went after were subjected to.
We know the answer, at least in part, because the Scottsdale justice system played an oversized role in an eight-part Goldwater Institute investigation into city courts that was published between July 2017 and April 2018. (The full series can be found here.)
One of the stories focused on the case of Randon Miller, owner of a restaurant near Scottsdale Road and Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard. Miller had long complained to city officials about police using his parking lot to pull over motorists, write citations and conduct traffic investigations. That was bad for business, Miller said. Flashing emergency lights on squad cars annoyed customers. And the line of police cars frequently blocked the parking lot, leaving patrons to stand at the curb waiting for the officers to finish their work and leave.
In response to Miller’s complaints, police set up a phony sting operation intended to “incite” (their word) Miller into losing his temper and breaking the law. He fell for it and was arrested on misdemeanor charges that included disorderly conduct and failure to obey police orders.
Exactly a year later, police set up another sting to incite Miller into committing some act for which he could be arrested. This time, Close gave instructions that police hold Miller in custody and contact her after he was arrested. That directive was given before the officers even went to Miller’s restaurant. Miller was prosecuted by Close and convicted on both occasions in Scottsdale city court.
In a different case, police had arrested a licensed massage therapist, identified only as “Julie” by the Goldwater Institute to protect her identity, on charges of prostitution. The case came down to Julie’s word against the officer’s. The only independent evidence was a recording from a surveillance microphone the officer wore into the massage room. But the transmitter stopped working when the officer entered the building, so there was no corroborating evidence of the officer’s version. Julie was convicted of prostitution and a variety of lesser crimes in Scottsdale city court.
“They don’t realize that they are wrecking someone’s whole existence,” said Julie, who vehemently denies the charges brought by the city prosecutor’s office. “It destroys a person completely. You have no hope of getting your life back.”
There is nothing wrong with an aggressive prosecutor. It is their job to be tough. But the check on the prosecutor’s power is supposed to be an independent judge, something that is lacking in city courts throughout Arizona.
As the Goldwater Institute series pointed out, municipal judges in every Arizona city except Yuma are hired, and can be fired, by city councils. City courts are the only level of the judiciary in Arizona in which the judges never answer to the people through elections. As a result, they are vulnerable to political pressure from council members, city prosecutors, police, and city administrators.
That pressure might be to raise money for the city, money that only comes with convictions. In the 2018 fiscal year, Scottsdale’s city court raked in about $7 million in revenue, including fines from photo radar tickets, while costing the city about $4.8 million to operate. Or the pressure might be to give favored treatment to influential city insiders, or to sign off on questionable city policies, such as well-publicized “crackdowns” on various offenses.
The Goldwater Institute is advocating legislation that would require city court judges to face voters at some point through an election. The intent is to make judges more independent by making them answerable to the citizens of their community, not to politicians on the council.
Bullying behavior is a bad thing from an employer. It’s also a bad thing from a prosecutor who has the power to put you in jail or cost you many thousands of dollars in fines, court costs, and legal fees. As Close’s case demonstrates, city employees who are mistreated at least have the recourse of the city’s personnel department, and if that fails, in courts that are presided over by independent judges who answer to the people. For the average citizen, that level of protection does not exist in city court.
Mark Flatten is the National Investigative Journalist at the Goldwater Institute.