Lawsuit against Albany Sheriff’s Office allowed to proceed

LARAMIE — A federal judge approved a civil rights lawsuit to move forward this month against the Albany County Sheriff’s Office.

In the lawsuit, a former University of Wyoming student alleged that two deputies pressured her to recant a rape allegation — and that her gender and sexuality played a key role in their actions.

Attorneys for the defense denied in a May 22 filing that the plaintiff’s “sexuality factored into the deputies’ investigation and determination.”

In April, Judge Alan Johnson dismissed the two deputies — Aaron Gallegos and Christian Handley — as defendants from the lawsuit, saying they could not be personally liable, but the judge also said the two officers handled the case poorly.

“Handley appears to believe if sexual activity is consensual at night, it is automatically consensual in the morning. He is wrong,” the judge wrote. “Additionally, at the time of the interrogation, defendants were aware Plaintiff had recently been suicidal, yet it appears they did not take that into account when speaking to her.”

Johnson said a transcript of the two officers’ interview of the plaintiff suggests the sheriff’s office “may treat lesbian women claiming sexual assault differently from straight women claiming sexual assault.”

In dismissing the individual officers as parties to the case, Johnson cited qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields government officials from being sued for discretionary actions performed under their official capacity, as a major reason that he couldn’t rule in favor of the victim.

However, attorneys for the sheriff’s office itself also asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit against the governmental entity itself, but Johnson declined that request this month, saying in a May 12 order that the plaintiff appears to make credible allegations that her equal protection rights — prescribed by the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment — may have been violated.

As Johnson noted in court documents filed on May 12, “a finding of qualified immunity does not shelter a municipality from liability,” essentially holding the sheriff’s department liable for the deputies’ actions, or lack thereof.

Now that the judge has approved for the case to move forward, the parties are scheduled for a pretrial conference June 22.

The core of the case began in February 2017 after the plaintiff, who was a University of Wyoming student at the time, told acquaintances she was sexually assaulted by a fellow cadet. Someone at the University of Wyoming reported the allegation to the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. Gallegos and Handley handled the investigation, with the former interviewing a number of witnesses, including the plaintiff in the lawsuit. Gallegos alleged in court documents that he became suspicious of “some things” the victim stated, so he and Handley conducted a final interview with her.

“Their tactics became abusive as they decided on their own version of events and ‘told’ her what happened, instead of listening to her,” the lawsuit claims.

In the interview, Handley suggested the incident was consensual, asking if the attacker “physically held (her) down and tie(d her) down and rape(d her.)”

There were also insinuations made by Handley late in the interview that there could be charges brought against the woman for filing a false report, which her attorneys later stated in court documents was an attempt to make her recant her statement.

The plaintiff identified as a lesbian, which she claimed was one of the reasons she was treated poorly by the officers.

Attorneys for the defendants characterize that interview much differently, saying the officers actually showed the plaintiff sympathy.

“If read in the context of the entire interview, constitute a justification for (the plaintiff)’s false reporting and not proof of Gallegos and Handley’s intentional discrimination against her,” those attorneys wrote.

In authorizing a portion of the lawsuit to move forward, Johnson wrote that the plaintiff had shown there was “deliberate indifference” to her rights.

Johnson said Handley’s statements were “rife with sex-based generalizations.”

“It is not only plausible, but clear Defendants failed to adequately respond to this sexual assault allegation, at least in part, due to sex-based stereotypes,” Johnson wrote. “It is inconceivable (Gallegos and Handley) would tell a straight woman that it must be weird being with a man.”

After the interview, Sheriff David O’Malley shared the full report and video of the interview with the leader of a University of Wyoming organization that the UW student was affiliated with.

Johnson said that was a clear violation of Wyoming statute governing sexual assault cases. Johnson said the sheriff’s office also disregarded the Wyoming Victim Bill of Rights.

“Sheriff O’Malley, the top-ranking person at (Albany County Sheriff’s Office), was involved with and familiar with the investigation,” Johnson wrote. “He discussed the investigation and interview with a third party and decided to violate Plaintiff’s equal protection rights.”