Pierce County prosecutors lost a round this week in a long-running legal battle with a retired sheriff’s deputy seeking to clear his name.
The circumstances are complicated. The key point is simple: money. Prosecutors sought to saddle deputy Michael Ames with more than $118,000 in attorney fees. Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull said no.
The outcome, barring a successful appeal: Pierce County taxpayers cover the legal bills.
In a ruling Wednesday, Hull, a visiting judge from Kitsap County, reversed a decision he made in April, when he agreed with prosecutors that Ames had filed a baseless, frivolous lawsuit that warranted sanctions.
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After hearing additional arguments and an outcry from more than 30 interested attorneys, Hull changed his mind.
“The case was not an abuse of the judicial system,” his ruling stated in part.
The decision was a victory for Ames and his attorney, Joan Mell, and a setback for prosecutors. The local legal community watched the case closely, sensitive to its broader implications.
Ames and Mell offered a statement Thursday concerning the ruling.
“We are grateful for a judge who took the time to listen to both sides and did the work needed to fully appreciate the issues before him,” they said. “Judge Hull made our day.”
Asked for comment Thursday, Prosecutor Mark Lindquist referred questions to Phil Talmadge, the attorney representing the county in the case. Talmadge indicated that the county will appeal Hull’s decision regarding fees.
Ames, a veteran computer forensics investigator, clashed with prosecutors in 2013 after he sought to disclose statements he’d made that favored a defendant in an unrelated criminal case.
Prosecutors tried to prevent the disclosure, but a judge ruled against them.
Subsequently, prosecutors filed briefs in other cases in which Ames was slated to appear as a witness. The briefs suggested that defense attorneys might question the deputy’s credibility.
In response, Ames sued the county. He didn’t ask for money. He wanted a hearing to clear his name. He argued that prosecutors were retaliating against him and branding him unfairly.
Hull ruled Ames wasn’t entitled to a hearing – that decision still stands, though Ames has appealed it.
Prosecutors then asked for sanctions and fees, arguing that Ames’ lawsuit was baseless and he should have known it.
Ames and Mell argued that losing the legal debate didn’t justify added sanctions, and that they’d brought the suit in good faith.
A large group of local attorneys and legal experts chimed in, saying the county’s attempt to seek fees could have a chilling effect on the legal system and whistleblowers.
Ultimately, Hull sided with Ames and agreed that the deputy’s effort to seek a name-clearing hearing wasn’t frivolous.
“Ames and his counsel made a reasonable inquiry,” Hull ruled.
Talmadge said the most important element of the case was that Ames’ lawsuit against the county was dismissed.
“Judge Hull stood by his clear ruling,” Talmadge said via email. “The only question is whether county taxpayers should be reimbursed for defending against this irresponsible lawsuit.
“Our Supreme Court will have before it the issue of the reimbursement of county taxpayers. The county is confident this baseless, irresponsible lawsuit will also be rejected by the high court, and county taxpayers will be reimbursed.”
In their statement, Ames and Mell said, “With regard to any appeal, Mark Lindquist has the right, like every other litigant to consider an appeal. He will have to decide how much of the taxpayers’ money he should spend, setting aside any individual vendetta.
“Detective Ames and I will continue all the way up as needed to make sure the prosecutor is accountable to police officers and their advocates.”