Undo Process

A judge orders prosecutor Toya Dawson back to work, but the city wants her gone.

In February 1999, a letter arrived from City Attorney Muse, informing her that she was being dismissed for violating several departmental rules, including those prohibiting "gross misconduct" and "deliberate discourtesy and rudeness toward the public." Muse cited the previous shoplifting case as well, stating unequivocally that it "also involved the excessive consumption of alcohol." Furthermore, Muse added, since the Denver District Attorney's Office stripped Dawson of her "special deputy DA" status, a cross-deputization that allows assistant city attorneys to prosecute state cases, her ability to perform her job "has been significantly reduced."

As it turned out, the DUI charge never went to trial. Witnesses to the accident couldn't identify Dawson as the driver of the car, and a judge decided the police had lacked probable cause to arrest her. The breath test was thrown out, the DUI charge dismissed. Dawson ended up pleading guilty to a single city ordinance violation of careless driving. But by the time the case was resolved, Dawson had already lost her job.

"What surprised us the most was that they made such a hasty decision, based on the allegation of the DUI," says Robert Bruce, Dawson's attorney. "I don't know why they were eager to get rid of her, but throughout the process, it's been clear that they don't want her working there. You would think that, after she wasn't convicted, they might rethink their position, but there's been no movement."

Rush to judgment: Toya Dawson was fired over a DUI charge that was later dismissed.
Anthony Camera
Rush to judgment: Toya Dawson was fired over a DUI charge that was later dismissed.

Dawson has her own ideas about why her superiors were so adamant about her termination. "To be real frank about it, Dan Muse is black and I'm black," she says. "When I got this DUI, he pulled me into the office and said, 'You embarrassed me.' He got real close to my face and whispered it to me. It was said with such disgust. I interpreted it as, 'You're black and I'm black, and this ain't gonna look good for me.'"

Muse, who stepped down as city attorney two years ago to return to private practice, denies that he treated Dawson differently than he would any other attorney in his office. "That's absurd," he says. "Her behavior was outrageous. She did not avail herself of the opportunities she was given to deal with some very serious personal issues. I never had any incidents with anyone else that were remotely similar to the events that resulted in her termination. I have no regrets, no misgivings about how I handled that situation at all."

Officials in the city attorney's office declined to comment about the case, citing the ongoing nature of the litigation, as did Gary Jackson, the outside counsel retained by the city in the matter in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest. But in its appeal of Martinez's order, the city contends that the judge should not have considered evidence that wasn't presented at the Career Service Board hearing, including the fact that Dawson's shoplifting and DUI charges were dismissed.

Other assistant city attorneys who were actually convicted of alcohol-related offenses have fared much better than Dawson. One longtime supervisor, who joined the office around the same time as Dawson, was hired despite his disclosure of a previous driving-while-impaired conviction. Another assistant city attorney, now a county magistrate, escaped discipline for a 1991 DWAI conviction for the simple reason that, unlike Dawson, he never reported the arrest to his superiors. Although Muse cited a number of vague rules about misconduct and rudeness in firing Dawson, there are no specific regulations prohibiting city attorneys from drinking to excess when they're not on the job.

"They never have added rules to this day which deal with DUIs," Dawson notes. "That's why I think this was personal. There's not a rule that says anyone who gets charged with this would be looking at losing their job."

Dawson lost far more than a paycheck. "I couldn't find any work at all," she says.

"As long as I had a job that was very structured, I could do just fine. But when they took my job away, the structure went out the window. I was hospitalized three times [for her bipolar condition]. I ended up on unemployment; then I didn't have any income whatsoever. I couldn't even get clerical work. I had to file bankruptcy. I lost a twelve-year relationship. You talk about losing everything -- I was crushed."

Two weeks ago, Dawson marked four years since her arrest in the Blockbuster parking lot -- four years of sobriety, she adds proudly. The prospect of returning to the stress of a prosecutor's job makes her nervous, but she's eager to get back to work. Although the loss of her deputy district attorney status could prevent her from working in traffic court, which involves a high percentage of state charges, she believes she could handle most types of cases in general sessions or other courtrooms with minimal assistance. Provided, of course, that the city attorney's office is willing to accommodate her.

"I think many people in the city attorney's office look at the judge's ruling as a very positive thing, because they're terrified to go up against these guys," Dawson says. "It's not because of what they did but in spite of it that I've been able to pick up my pieces and move on."

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