Lawsuit against DA Tom Sneddon
By Quintin Cushner/Senior Staff Writer
A federal judge Thursday set an Aug. 7 trial date for a $10 million lawsuit – alleging civil rights violations – filed by a Lompoc attorney against the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office.
U.S. District Court Judge James Otero announced the trial date at a hearing in Los Angeles.
Plaintiff Gary Dunlap said he was looking forward to the trial, expected to last about two weeks.
“It’s now up to the jury to decide whether or not the conduct of law enforcement was acceptable,” Dunlap said.
Michael Allen, attorney for Santa Barbara County, did not return calls seeking comment. Allen in the past has denied his clients did anything improper.
The lawsuit accuses District Attorney Tom Sneddon, Assistant District Attorney Christie Stanley, and deputy district attorneys Jerry McBeth and Josh Webb of violating Dunlap’s civil rights, inflicting emotional distress, and interfering with his law practice by wrongfully prosecuting him on charges of suborning perjury and witness tampering.
Each of the prosecutors has declined comment on the case.
The federal lawsuit may sort out whether the investigation and prosecution of Dunlap by the District Attorney’s Office was unconstitutional, or simply unorthodox.
The complex tale stems from an August 2000 domestic-violence case in which Frank Campos was charged with beating his wife in front of a Lompoc apartment building. Campos hired Dunlap to represent him.
A teenager named Shauna Bennett witnessed the events and testified at pre-trial hearings against Campos. Before the Campos trial, the young woman, accompanied by her boyfriend’s mother, Barbara Barajas, met with Dunlap at his office.
What occurred at that meeting remains in dispute.
Prosecutors have alleged in court documents that Dunlap attempted to intimidate the young woman to induce her to give testimony more flattering toward his client Campos.
Dunlap claims in his lawsuit that Bennett and Barajas went to his office to inform him that prosecutors were pressuring Bennett to give testimony implicating Campos.
When the young woman later testified at trial, Bennett changed her statements in ways that supported Campos. Despite this, Campos was convicted of domestic violence and sent to state prison.
After the trial, prosecutors began investigating Dunlap for allegedly threatening Bennett and coercing her into committing perjury.
The investigation took a twist March 17, 2002, when Barajas’ son, Agustin Salas, was arrested on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving, being unlicensed and evading arrest.
Prosecutors allegedly told Barajas to hire Dunlap as an attorney for her son. Outfitted with a recording device, Barajas was to ask if Dunlap would take the case for free, as thanks for her work in allegedly helping the teen girl change her tune. When Dunlap set his fee at $1,000, prosecutors allegedly provided her the money.
Salas, who had no substantial defense, wanted to serve his sentence. Dunlap brokered a deal April 29, 2003, for Salas to serve 120 days in jail for drunken driving and evading arrest.
Prosecutors were allegedly unhappy that their investigation of Dunlap had been cut short, and instructed Barajas to have her son’s plea withdrawn.
The lawsuit claims prosecutors then had an improper conversation with Superior Court Judge Diana Hall, who presided over the Salas hearings, and revealed the ongoing investigation against Dunlap.
Eventually, the case against Salas was dismissed. Prosecutors ended up paying Barajas $11,000 and placing her into the federal witness-protection program, in part for her work on the Dunlap case.
Prosecutors later filed charges against Dunlap. A Santa Maria jury on June 4, 2003, acquitted the attorney of six felony counts, including suborning perjury, witness intimidation, filing false documents and preparing false documents.
Dunlap, now 64, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor marijuana possession and an infraction for possessing drug paraphernalia, two violations that surfaced when the attorney’s home and office were searched as part of the investigation.
December 9, 2005