A Woodbridge man who went to a magistrate for help with a telephone threat says that instead, he was punched in the face by the judge -- twice -- and now is sparring with the Virginia Attorney General's Office, which argues that the judge was just doing his job.
Steven Barker, 31, a water company employee, finally got some help yesterday from a federal judge in Alexandria, who said the blows allegedly struck by the magistrate were "outrageous" and not protected by judicial immunity.
"There is never any reason for any judge, from the United States Supreme Court to the lowest state court, to strike anyone," said U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III.
Barker filed a civil rights suit last month in the Alexandria court accusing Prince William Magistrate J.B. Polson of punching him after he asked the magistrate to issue an arrest warrant against a man who Barker claimed threatened his life. Minutes later, Polson struck Barker in the presence of at least two police officers, who told Barker they could not arrest Polson for assault because he was a magistrate, according to Barker's complaint. Barker seeks an unspecified amount of damages.
Assistant Attorney General Linwood T. Wells Jr., in a hearing yesterday on the constitutional issues of the case, argued that Polson was protected from civil suits because judges cannot be sued as a result of their official actions.
Judge Ellis asked Wells if he believed Polson was "acting within his judicial capacity when he punched this fellow in the face."
"Yes, because he was acting as justice of the peace," responded Wells. He explained that Polson "was trying to maintain some kind of decorum in the setting where they were by doing what he did."
Jeanne Goldberg, Barker's attorney, argued that the blows were wholly unjustified. "There was no need for force here whatsoever," Goldberg told the court. "There was no disorder other than when the judge went into his rage."
Goldberg added later that she was "shocked that the Commonwealth would attempt to portray this malicious assault upon an innocent litigant as a judicial act shielded by absolute immunity."
Bert L. Rohrer, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said Wells "took the admittedly difficult position that the magistrate was acting judicially -- maybe not judiciously, but judicially. Some cases are tougher than others."
The incident took place April 17, 1989, shortly after Barker had a heated argument with the owner of a parking lot where Barker's car was impounded, according to Barker's attorneys.
Barker went to a magistrate's office in Woodbridge and asked Polson to issue an arrest warrant against the lot owner because he allegedly had threatened Barker over the phone. Barker claims in his complaint that Polson refused to issue the warrant, saying he knew the lot owner and did not believe the man would make such threats.
When Barker asked to see another magistrate because he felt Polson had a conflict of interest, Polson allegedly punched Barker in the face and ordered him out of the office, according to the complaint.
After police officers outside said they could not arrest Polson, Barker said "he would wait for defendant Polson across the street and speak with him about it later," the complaint says. Barker claims that Polson, who had followed him outside, then socked him in the face again.
Richard S. Sanborn, chief magistrate of Prince William, said yesterday that Barker complained about the incident but never pursued the matter.
Sanborn said Polson, a magistrate for 10 years, "is a well-trained magistrate who understands his work very well and performs his duties in an excellent manner."
Judge Ellis ruled that there were sufficient constitutional grounds to bring the suit in federal court. Further hearings will be held.
Wells described the suit as "a 10-cent case" of simple assault suitable only for state court because the blows were not "shocking" enough to raise constitutional issues.
Ellis bridled at that argument. To imagine a judge using physical force in an official setting, he said, "shocks the conscience."