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Judge Who Drug Tested Observers to Face Civil Rights Suit

April 8, 2020, 9:35 PM

A Missouri state judge must face a suit seeking to stop him from drug testing and detaining courtroom observers after a federal judge allowed part of the action to move forward.

Judge Douglas Gaston’s judicial immunity only protects him from part of a civil rights suit brought by a trio who were allegedly placed in custody and drug tested after attending a hearing in Texas County court, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri said Tuesday.

Norma and Arthur Rogers were in the courtroom to support their daughter during a temporary guardianship hearing for their granddaughter. William Hale, the third plaintiff, gave the Rogers family a ride to the courthouse. Gaston and Arthur Rogers had some back-and-forth during the hearing, ending with Gaston accusing Rogers of giving him a look and then having law enforcement take the trio into custody.

“To any extent Plaintiffs’ declaratory claims against Judge Gaston are retrospective in nature, they are barred by absolute judicial immunity,” Judge Roseann A. Ketchmark’s order said. “Plaintiffs’ claims for prospective declaratory relief against Judge Gaston, however, are not barred by judicial immunity.”

Missouri case law suggests state judges may “order drug testing of the parties involved in a custody proceeding,” Ketchmark said. State law also provides authority for a judge to “enter any order necessary to ensure the safety” of the child in a custody case, and at least two of the plaintiffs were family members of the child here, whose parents had been accused of methamphetamine use, the order said.

“While Judge Gaston’s evaluation of what was necessary may have been extreme, it cannot be said Judge Gaston acted in a complete absence of jurisdiction,” Ketchmark said.

The plaintiffs’ claims for prospective declaratory relief aren’t moot because there’s a “substantial likelihood” they’ll suffer similar injuries in the future, the order said.

Gaston allegedly “has a policy and practice of drug testing and detaining non-parties” which “would reasonably chill a reasonable person from protected First Amendment activity.” Although Gaston recused himself from the custody case, he’s still involved in a criminal proceeding against the child’s mother, which the plaintiffs may wish to attend without worrying they’ll be placed in custody again, Ketchmark said.

The Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union represented the Rogers family. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office represented Gaston.

The case is Rogers v. Gaston, W.D. Mo., No. 19-cv-3346, motion to dismiss denied in part 4/7/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Bennett in Washington at jbennett@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com

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