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Tuesday, October 3, 2023
Oct. 3, 2023

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Skagit County pays $250,000 to settle lawsuit alleging ex-deputy falsified an arrest report


Skagit County has paid $250,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by an oyster farmer who alleged a now-decertified county deputy falsified an arrest report and urged a victim to lie during a 2017 domestic-violence investigation.

Gerardo Rodarte, the owner of Samish Gold Seafoods, had sued the county and former Deputy Joseph Gutierrez in 2020, a year after he was acquitted by a jury of domestic-violence assault charges. The charges had been based on the deputy’s sworn statement and reports. Court documents show Gutierrez, who was fired from the Sheriff’s Office in 2018, refused to testify at the trial.

Gutierrez was stripped of his badge and his certification as a Washington law enforcement officer was revoked over allegations of having sex while on duty and failing to aid his fellow officers during an escape from the Skagit Community Correctional Center, records obtained from the Criminal Justice Training Commission show.

Rodarte’s lawsuit alleged that Gutierrez conspired with Rodarte’s niece, who was an employee at Rodarte’s oyster farm, to falsely accuse her uncle of assaulting her in exchange for help with her immigration status, according to the court pleadings. The filings don’t detail how that immigration help would have occurred or whether Gutierrez otherwise knew the niece.

The niece called the Sheriff’s Office on June 7, 2017, and claimed she had been assaulted by Rodarte. Gutierrez was among the deputies who responded and he arrested Rodarte, despite his claims and statements from his wife that it was the niece who attacked him, biting his thumb and hitting him in the head with a telephone handset, according to the lawsuit and other documents filed in U.S. District Court.

Rodarte claimed in his lawsuit that, while transporting him to jail, Gutierrez met his niece and told her “they needed to change their story because it did not fit the evidence, and that they had to fix it so it looked real,” according to the pleadings.

He claimed Gutierrez took pictures of the niece’s neck, which showed bruising and marks that had not been there previously. In a 2021 ruling denying Gutierrez’s motion to dismiss the fabrication and false-evidence claim, U.S. District Judge Rothstein found that the claims “creates a question of fact on whether Defendant Gutierrez assisted plaintiff’s niece in fabricating her statement and the marks on her neck.”

Meanwhile, Rodarte’s wife, Fabiola Higareda Hernandez, signed a sworn affidavit claiming Gutierrez had falsified statements attributed to her in his arrest report, according to the pleadings.

Rodarte had also claimed that Gutierrez denied him medical treatment for his head wound, and told him he would not receive his heart medication while he was in jail. Rothstein dismissed those claims, citing contradictory statements from jail personnel who said Rodarte was given his medication and a finding that the former deputy did not have control over what happened to Rodarte once he was incarcerated.

The judge also dismissed claims of conspiracy but ordered the evidence-falsification claims to trial.

Gutierrez had claimed he was entitled to qualified immunity from liability because the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office made an “independent decision” to file criminal domestic-violence assault charges against Rodarte.

However, Rothstein said that immunity dissolves if it can be shown that the officer “either presented false evidence to or withheld crucial evidence from the prosecutor.”

“There are genuine issues of material fact on the questions of whether defendant Gutierrez fabricated evidence against plaintiff and whether the alleged fabrication caused injury to plaintiff,” the judge wrote.

The Skagit County Attorney’s Office, which represented Gutierrez, did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment on the settlement.

Rodarte’s Seattle attorney, Jesse Valdez, said Rodarte spent a night in jail. His lawsuit alleges a clam harvest worth $500,000 he had farmed the day of his arrest spoiled while he was incarcerated.

Gutierrez appealed Rothstein’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which delayed the proceedings for more than a year. A three-judge appeals court panel in January upheld Rothstein’s decision to send the evidence-falsification claim to trial.

As for damages, the appeals judges wrote, “We have held that it ‘is virtually self-evident’ that ‘there is a clearly established constitutional right not to be subjected to criminal charges on the basis of false evidence deliberately fabricated by the government.’”