A man on trial for misdemeanor assault and trespass charges in Washington's San Juan County had his case thrown out after the sheriff used a courtroom security camera to zoom in on defense and juror notes. The man's public defender says her client's civil rights were violated right in the courtroom, calling the incident “outrageous.”
In court filings, Sheriff Ron Krebs said the incident resulted because the defendant had allegedly threatened to stab a local grocer, but claimed zooming in on the documents was inadvertent.
Video Screenshots and Crucial Questions
The video has not yet been released publicly. Screenshots provided by a county civil rights lawyer show closeups of a legal pad belonging to the public defender, as well as the notebook of juror number 3. This lawyer has also entered filings to make the video public, and wants answers to critical questions surrounding the incident.
These questions include why a courtroom camera has zoom capabilities, and whether someone at another county terminal can control courtroom cameras. He notes that other courtrooms in the same courthouse do not have security cameras with zoom capabilities.
Routine Trial, Different Judge
This was a low-level criminal trial of little interest to anyone not directly involved in the case. A retired judge was filling in for District Judge Kathryn Loring, while she worked on another issue elsewhere in the courthouse. It was Loring's presence elsewhere, however, that revealed the security camera's zooming. Loring was reviewing a calendar at the desk of the court administrator, which has two computer terminals, one of which worked as a security monitor.
The judge noticed that the courtroom camera shown on the monitor was zooming and panning in on the jury box and the defense counsel's table. Loring then asked the court administrator to approach the judge hearing the case during a break. That judge then informed the defense counsel and the prosecutor of the camera's antics, and dismissed the case due to government misconduct – the zooming camera.
Not the First Case Thrown Out Due to the Sheriff
This isn't the first time the San Juan County prosecutor's office has had a case thrown out because of misconduct by the Sheriff's Office. In 2016, the same judge, who had not yet retired, threw out a high school teacher's felony conviction of having sex with a 19-year-old student after it turned out the sheriff's detective working the case had sex with the same student and lied about it.
Under Washington law, a student must be at least 21 to have a consensual relationship with a teacher. The detective was allowed to retire and move out of state without facing any criminal charges, but the high school teacher petitioned the court to charge the detective with gross misdemeanors, including making a false or misleading statement to a public servant and obstructing a law enforcement officer after signing a voluntary witness statement.
In that statement, the detective stated that he did not have any kind of relationship with the high school teacher's alleged victim, but investigators later concluded he was lying. A bigger question is why the teacher had to file the charges in the first place since county authorities should have filed such charges previously. At the time, Krebs said a thorough background check had been conducted on the detective prior to his hiring. “We went overboard. And nothing, nobody anywhere had anything bad to say about him,” according to Krebs.