MERIDIAN (Idaho Statesman) — Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador on Thursday announced that his office filed a motion to dismiss charges against a Meridian woman who was charged with trespassing in early 2020 after using a public playground that was closed because of COVID-19 concerns.
The filing is one of Labrador’s first moves since taking office as Idaho’s highest attorney on Jan. 2. It quickly drew criticism from Meridian’s mayor, a fellow Republican, who called it “abhorrent,” and from the city’s top police official.
“Fortunately for the people of Idaho, our police officers are apolitical in carrying out their duties; unfortunately this can’t be said for the new Idaho attorney general,” Meridian Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea said.
The woman, Sara Walton Brady, was an outspoken supporter of Labrador’s 2022 attorney general campaign, according to social media posts.
In a news release, Labrador characterized Walton Brady’s arrest as a sign of “significant government overreach.”
“This case should have never been prosecuted,” he said. “It has been a profound waste of precious taxpayer resources. 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.”
Walton Brady was arrested on April 21, 2020, at Julius M. Kleiner Memorial Park in Meridian and charged with a first offense of trespassing — a misdemeanor.
The city had closed public parks nearly a month earlier in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival in Idaho, and playground equipment was taped off with police caution tape. Other playgrounds and outdoor exercise equipment in the Treasure Valley had also been blocked off as part of early efforts to encourage social distancing.
According to previous Idaho Statesman reporting, Walton Brady is an activist for “parental medical rights” and ran a Facebook page called Idahoans for Vaccine Freedom at the time of her arrest. She and other families gathered at the playground, and police said at the time that Walton Brady was arrested when she refused to leave after being asked to do so by police.
Video of Walton Brady’s arrest went viral on social media and prompted a flood of hundreds of calls to Ada County emergency dispatch. Many callers hurled insults and threats at dispatch operators, public records showed. A group of people, including former gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy, gathered outside the home of the arresting officer.
Shortly after Walton Brady was released from jail, she characterized the incident as tyranny and vowed to fight back. In July 2020, she entered a not guilty plea. The case was scheduled to go to a jury trial on Jan. 24, according to court records.
In a text message, Walton Brady told the Statesman on Thursday that she was happy and relieved. She called Labrador “a true leader” and said the money and resources spent on her case were “egregious.”
“The emotional and financial toll this has taken on myself and family is something that no one should have to go through, but I’m thankful that I’ve maintained my innocence, and that’s the true win,” she said. “To be able to remain innocent when I did nothing wrong.”
AG’S OFFICE OUTLINES ARGUMENT FOR DISMISSAL
In its news release, the attorney general’s office said Labrador moved to dismiss the case for three reasons.
“First, there are no allegations that Ms. Brady injured any person or property, or that she physically resisted officers,” the news release said. “Second, the evidence, itself, makes it far from certain that any reasonable jury would convict her. And third, the state has already expended far more resources than is typical of misdemeanor cases.”
In the motion to dismiss, Deputy Attorney General Haylee P. Mills wrote that Walton Brady was standing on a bark mulch area surrounding the playground when she was arrested. Mills said Walton Brady had walked to that part of the park to participate in a conversation that two Meridian police officers and a city Parks and Recreation employee were having with the families who’d been asked to leave.
“The conversation culminated in the first officer ordering Brady to leave the playground and then counting down from five,” Mills wrote. “When the officer got to three, Brady stated, ‘arrest me for being at the park,’ and the officer obliged.”
The motion states that, to convict Walton Brady, a jury would need to show beyond a reasonable doubt that she knew she was not allowed at the park. Because officers had invited the families to a conversation, the motion said, a jury could find reasonable doubt.
“The state does not condone Brady’s belligerence with law enforcement, but her unwarranted belligerence was not part of the factual basis for the charge against her,” the motion continued. “And she has publicly apologized to the Meridian Police Department for that portion of her behavior.”
Walton Brady posted publicly on Facebook before the May 2022 Republican primary election that she planned to vote for the former congressman. She attended election night candidate gatherings during the primary and November general elections wearing a dress emblazoned with Labrador’s campaign logo and the word “vote.”
Photos from election night show Walton Brady posing with Labrador. According to public campaign finance records, Walton Brady did not donate money to Labrador’s campaign. Records show that one of the attorneys on retainer in her case, John Alegria, donated $260 to Labrador in April 2022.
Walton Brady told the Statesman in her text message that she never spoke with Labrador about her case.
“My support for Raul is genuine, because I believe that he will be a strong attorney general for the state of Idaho,” Walton Brady said. “I have never talked to Raul or anyone working in his campaign about my case. I may have had one or two conversations with him in public settings that had nothing to do with my case.”
The Statesman has reached out to the Attorney General’s Office for comment.
MERIDIAN MAYOR, POLICE CHIEF CRITICIZE DISMISSAL
In a statement Thursday afternoon, Meridian Mayor Robert Simison and Basterrechea slammed Labrador’s decision.
“The attorney general’s apparent philosophy to selectively dismiss cases of his choosing and endorse illegal behavior is abhorrent,” Simison said. “I support the people’s right to assemble for peaceful protest, but that right does not include ignoring lawful orders or being free from the legal ramifications of those actions.”
Simison accused Labrador of breaching his oath of office to uphold the rule of law.
“If this is the tone he sets as Idaho’s top legal officer, I am concerned about what the future holds,” Simison said, calling the motion to dismiss a “slap in the face.”
The statement also pointed out that right-wing, anti-vaccine groups targeted police after the arrest, and “led to the harassment of our officers at their private homes and doxing public servants.”
Basterrechea accused Labrador of behaving out of political motivation. He said that as recently as Dec. 30, 2022, conversations with the Attorney General’s Office indicated the case would move forward.