PHOENIX – A court hearing begins Monday to explore the federal government's bid to disband the shared police department for two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah that were found by a jury to have discriminated against nonbelievers on the basis of religion.
The four-day hearing in Phoenix will examine remedies that U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland could order in response to the jury's finding seven months ago that nonbelievers were denied police protection, building permits and water hookups in the adjacent towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.
The civil rights case against both towns marks one of the battles that the federal government is waging to rein in the sect's activities, which prosecutors say are dictated by the commands of their jailed leader and prophet, Warren Jeffs. He is serving a life sentence in a Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered wives.
Federal prosecutors also this year charged 11 group members, including several high-ranking leaders, with carrying out a multiyear, multimillion-dollar food stamp fraud scheme. The suspects have pleaded not guilty, and they are awaiting trial.
In the Arizona civil rights case, the jury found the Colorado City Marshal's Office violated the rights of nonbelievers by breaking the First Amendment's promise that the government won't show preference to a particular faith and force religion upon people. Jurors concluded officers treated nonbelievers inequitably when providing police protection, arrested them without having probable cause and made unreasonable searches of their property.
The U.S. Justice Department said the police department is inflicted by an entrenched culture of following the edicts of sect leader Jeffs, at the expense of the rights of nonbelievers. The federal agency also has asked the judge to appoint an official to monitor town operations and get county sheriffs to take over policing duties.
Federal authorities alleged the towns operated as an arm of the Fundamentalist Church of Justice Christ of Latter Day Saints, a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism, which disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.
The civil rights trial marked one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have long said was a corrupt regime in both towns. It also provided a rare glimpse into the communities that have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of the government and outsiders.
At trial this spring, the towns denied the discrimination allegations and said the government was persecuting town officials because it disapproved of their faith.
They vigorously oppose the request to disband the police department and the appointment of a monitor.
Their lawyers say police departments in other municipalities that have been targeted in federal civil rights investigations haven't faced remedies as drastic as disbandment. They acknowledged the police department has had problems in the past, but they said no officers have been decertified since 2007.
The Justice Department has said 30 percent of the officers over the last 15 years have been decertified, including four police chiefs.
The towns also have suggested they can resolve their problems through policy changes and employee training and should be able to demonstrate their compliance through reports and documents.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.