Judge said court had ‘no power to prosecute’ without Idaho attorney general. Here’s why

When Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador this month called to dismiss a case against an activist who defied a COVID-19 order, questions were raised about the role of the state’s top attorney in local prosecutions.

It’s not unusual for the attorney general to take over local prosecutions under similar circumstances, former attorneys general told the Idaho Statesman. But it’s important that the state’s attorney maintain cooperative and cordial relationships with local law enforcement, and Labrador’s office fell short in this case, they said.

Sara Walton Brady was charged with misdemeanor trespassing after she refused to leave a Meridian playground, which was closed over health concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. An Ada County judge dismissed the charge Wednesday and said the court has “no power to prosecute” without the support of the attorney general.

Meridian officials said they were caught off-guard by Labrador’s motion to dismiss the case, after years of work by his predecessor. Major Robert Simison called the move “abhorrent,” while Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea accused Labrador of “political grandstanding.”

“I’m disappointed that more harmonious relations weren’t achieved,” said David Leroy, Idaho attorney general from 1979 to 1983, who endorsed Labrador’s campaign and supported his decision to drop the case.

Leroy said Simison is a “good public relations man,” and he’d value the mayor’s support “to the maximum extent possible” if he were in Labrador’s position.

“Hopefully that can be achieved in the future,” he said.

In an emailed statement, Labrador said he followed his prosecutors’ recommendation, his office “communicated with local law enforcement” and the “dismissal served the ends of justice.”

“All this hand-wringing over a misdemeanor dismissal simply shows what everyone knew all along,” Labrador said. “The original decision to proceed was about virtue signaling, not laws and orders. Our office has moved on, Idahoans have moved on, and now it’s time for former attorneys general to move on.”

Why Idaho AG was involved in a local court case

Walton Brady, an anti-vaccine activist, was arrested on April 21, 2020, at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park.

The Meridian mom urged local police to arrest her when she and other protesters brought their children to a playground closed over coronavirus concerns. After her arrest, dozens of protesters, including political agitators and former independent governor candidate Ammon Bundy, picked up the arresting officer’s home.

Labrador, who defeated 20-year incumbent Lawrence Wasden in last year’s GOP primary, filed the motion to dismiss the case on Jan. 5, during his first week in office. In a news release, Labrador said Walton Brady should never have been prosecuted.

“It has been a profound waste of precious taxpayer resources,” he said. “Going forward, we will focus the people’s resources on prosecuting child exploiters and other serious criminals — not mothers who take their kids to the park.”

The Boise city attorney’s office, which handles misdemeanor cases from Meridian, was initially assigned as prosecutor for Walton Brady’s case. But Boise attorneys asked the state attorney general’s office to take over on April 24, 2020, citing a conflict of interest.

Wasden’s office successfully opposed multiple motions by Walton Brady to dismiss the case, but it dragged on for years until a jury trial was set for Jan. 24. Labrador took over as a prosecutor on the case when he took office.

Local prosecutors seek assistance, from the state or another city or county, when conflicts arise or when they lack experience in a particular subject, said Jim Jones, Idaho attorney general from 1983 to 1991, who later served as chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court .

“It doesn’t happen a great number of times, but it happens fairly frequently,” Jones said by phone.

City and county prosecutors have authority over local cases absent a particular statute, such as the Consumer Protection Act, Jones said. That statute directs local law enforcement to aid the attorney general.

“If county or city prosecutors think that the AG is not going to pursue their cases with diligence, they may decide that the place to go is somewhere else besides the AG’s office,” Jones said.

Jones was a vehement critic of Labrador’s attorney general candidacy and worked as campaign treasurer for his Democratic challenger, Boise attorney Tom Arkoosh.

During Leroy’s tenure, the attorney general’s office created a local assistance division to help cities and counties with complicated cases, Leroy told the Statesman by phone. Relations between state and local law enforcement are “very significant,” Leroy said, pointing to the city, county, state and federal investigations that led to an arrest recently in the Moscow quadruple homicide.

“The coordination of law enforcement efforts between the state level and the county level is vital in terms of setting the tone for the rule of law in the state,” he said.

Diverging opinions on whether to dismiss

Jones and Leroy diverged on Labrador’s decision to dismiss the case. Leroy backed Labrador’s decision to drop it.

“I think it’s time as a society to put COVID prosecutors and COVID mandates behind us,” Leroy told the Statesman.

Last year, Leroy endorsed Labrador’s campaign, citing the candidate’s promise to bring back to the office a solicitor general, a staff attorney who litigates high-profile cases, which Labrador did.

Ultimately, Walton Brady’s case was a “minor matter,” but it may have greater implications, Leroy said. He’s hopeful the decision doesn’t harm the public perception that Labrador is pro-law enforcement.

“It should not be viewed as either a political statement or an unfriendliness to law enforcement by the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Jones, on the other hand, said Labrador should have declared a conflict of interest and sent the case back to local prosecutors. Walton Brady was a public supporter of his as well as a strong opponent of COVID-19 restrictions, he said.

Participating in election parties last year, she wore a dress adorned with the Labrador’s campaign logo.

In a recent column published by the Idaho Falls Post Register, Jones slammed Labrador for having a “clear conflict,” and Jones warned an “equally troubling decision” awaits Labrador in a Bonneville County debt collection case between high-profile Republicans, in which one side contributed a slew of donations to Labrador’s campaign.