A federal judge has tossed former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s $80 million lawsuit on Friday, finding those who investigated and charged him with public corruption six years ago can’t be sued for doing their jobs.
Shurtleff was at the center of one of Utah’s most sweeping political scandals, though in 2016, all criminal charges against him were dismissed.
He accepted a $600,000 settlement with the state over the legal fees he accrued while fighting the charges. But that didn’t end the litigation that Shurtleff filed in federal court against Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and other various state and federal law enforcement agencies that investigated him and his successor, John Swallow, on corruption-related allegations.
The federal lawsuit alleged that even though charges were dropped, the damage remained. Shurtleff's arrest, the search and seizure of his property and his prosecution caused humiliation and other pain and suffering, he wrote in the civil suit filed earlier this year.
Shurtleff initially sought $60 million in his civil lawsuit, then upped it to $80 million after amending his suit.
But U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups wrote in a Friday ruling that Shurtleff did not show how federal agents used excessive force during a search of home, saying that a SWAT team serving a warrant signed by a judge is not inherently excessive.
And the judge further ruled that Shurtleff didn’t prove that he was arrested and charged without probable cause, a legal standard which means that there is sufficient evidence to show that a crime was likely committed by someone.
This means that police and prosecutors were covered by the “doctrine of qualified immunity,” Waddoups wrote — in other words, they can’t be sued for doing their jobs.
Shurtleff said Friday that he hasn’t decided if he will appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Let me count the ways how wrong it is,” he said when asked for his reaction. “Obviously, I strongly disagree with it.”
Darcy Goddard, an attorney in Gill's office, gave this statement: “We are pleased the court gave Mr. Shurtleff every opportunity to make his case, but that the court ultimately recognized Mr. Shurtleff’s demand for $80 million in taxpayer dollars was legally without merit and should be dismissed.”
The criminal case against the three-time attorney general, who was charged in 2014 with bribery, corruption and other charges stemming from his time in office, was dropped in July 2016. Gill’s office initially prosecuted the case, but it was handed off to Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings, who opted to dismiss it.
Shurtleff said since then he’s lost job opportunities because employers Google him and see the allegations. He and his family — his wife, son and daughter are named plaintiffs in the case — also face medical bills for the therapy they sought to process the police raid on their home.
The former attorney general, who is now in private practice, said the ordeal gave him a new perspective about what he believes was police misconduct and prosecutorial overreach. It wasn’t necessary, he said, for agents to raid his home and point their weapons at his daughter.
He noted that it’s almost impossible to sue prosecutors because of immunity laws, and said he had hoped the lawsuit could have paved a way for pro bono work for others who believe they were victims of police misconduct.
Shurtleff was able to get that free legal help in his case, he said, because of how high profile the case was.
“So many people are still victims of this type of abuse,” he said, “and they end up pleading to something.”
Shurtleff and Swallow were arrested in July 2014 amid an investigation into allegations that the two accepted bribes and favors. Together, they were charged initially with a combined 23 counts. Both maintained their innocence and walked away without a conviction.
Swallow was acquitted of charges after a jury trial in 2017, and Utah lawmakers recently approved a $1.5 million settlement to pay for Swallow’s legal fees.
State law permits public officials to seek compensation for lawyer costs if they are acquitted of criminal charges.