“Did Judge Stoney abuse his discretion? The answer is yes” reads a July 30 ruling by 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock in deciding if Saratoga Springs Justice Court Judge Stoney had gone too far in jailing a woman in 2010 simply for having her cell phone out in his court room.
On August 27, 2010, Elaine Damron was in attendance at Stoney’s Saratoga Springs Justice Court to support her son Ryan Peltekian, who was appearing in court on a loose-dog charge. The family had fought the charges with the city to the point that father Edward Peltekian believed Stoney and the city prosecutor had a vendetta against his family. Those fears seemed realized during the 2010 hearing, when Stoney threw Damron in jail for criminal contempt of court and took possession of her cell phone for allegedly violating court rules against recording court proceedings.
A City Weekly reporter in attendance, however, reported that posted court rules made no declarations against recording, only against having cell phones out, a rule that was not being enforced in the court room since numerous people in attendance had cell phones out including a bailiff and the city prosecutor.
In Laycock’s July 30 ruling, she ruled that the criminal contempt charge be vacated against Damron, noting that not only was the testimony of Stoney and other court staff not credible but that the situation did not merit a contempt of court charge. At the 2010 hearing, Damron acknowledged that she recorded the hearing for a time, but when a bailiff told her to stop she did. She later said that she absentmindedly took the phone out of her purse but that she was not recording again. Having the phone out in court, however, was enough for Stoney to find her in contempt of court and have her arrested and jailed.
Only after Damron’s arrest would it be discovered that she only had one audio recording on her phone.
“Stoney’s error was, indeed, egregious and its consequences were severe,” Laycock’s ruling reads. “Because of his error, Ms. Damron was removed from her son’s hearing, detained in handcuffs for an hour at the Saratoga Springs court, subjected to a hearing that violated her rights to due process, and then taken to the Utah County Jail, where she served a 24-hour sentence.”
Laycock found plenty of fault with the way Stoney had held an impromptu court hearing for Damron, during which the evidence in question was not examined to see if there had been multiple recordings and Damron’s attorney was not allowed to ask questions of a number of witnesses who spoke against Damron but were not sworn in. Laycock’s ruling did note that after Damron was arrested and her phone was seized, an officer noted only one audio recording on the phone. At the time of the hearing, Stoney said the contempt was based on Damron recording the proceedings.
“It is strictly forbidden to record in the courtroom without express permission of the law, or the judge, and in this case, the judge is the law,” Stoney said at the 2010 hearing.
Now, however, Judge Laycock has found Stoney’s behavior to not be in accordance with the law and vacated the ruling. Beyond that, Laycock found the testimony Stoney gave during the July 12 hearing to not be credible, where he claimed to have seen with his own eyes that Damron had been recording for a second time with her phone. The court also found that the testimony of a courtroom volunteer, called to corroborate Stoney’s account, also was not credible. That volunteer appeared to not even remember that the court hearing was in the afternoon of August 27, 2010, and not that morning, as the witness testified. Moreover, Laycock noted that Stoney claimed he had seen Damron’s surreptitious recording, that he immediately announced that he saw her recording for a second time and that he “had carefully made all of the necessary findings of contempt” against Damron.
“The court does not find these claims to be credible,” Laycock’s ruling reads. City Weekly recently reported that a Judicial Conduct Commission investigator had spoken with Stoney about the incident with Damron, suggesting the state is investigating Stoney about jailing Damron for possible sanction, though the JCC has declined to comment. Damron is hopeful that the ruling in her favor will help the JCC move ahead in sanctioning Stoney for his conduct.
“I would certainly hope that this could make the [JCC] take a closer look and maybe step in and do something about the abuses going on in the justice courts,” Damron says. “I have been pushing this so far because I want this to stop. I want the citizens to stop being abused by the justice courts.”