Undo Process

After prosecuting cases for the City of Denver for thirteen years, Toya Dawson thought she knew the rules. And the most important rule was also the most basic one: innocent until proven guilty.

But then Dawson discovered that the city attorney's office has a different set of rules for its own employees. In 1998, after being arrested and charged with drunk driving, Dawson was fired by then-city attorney Dan Muse. Accused but never convicted, Dawson has battled for four years to clear her name and win back her job -- and has learned a few things about human nature in the process.

"I had been a decent and upstanding city prosecutor," Dawson says. "When I got this charge, people wouldn't look at me. People who I worked with in the courthouse -- judges, clerks -- wouldn't talk to me. It's amazing what you learn when you fall out of grace."

Dawson appealed her termination to the city's Career Service Board, which upheld Muse's decision, then to district court. Her attorneys argued that the city gave Dawson less consideration than it routinely affords the accused wife-beaters, shoplifters, potheads and traffic scofflaws Dawson prosecuted in the county courts.

Denver District Judge Frank Martinez thought so, too. Last month, Martinez overturned the Career Service Board's ruling and ordered Dawson reinstated with back pay. "It defies reason to punish someone for a crime they were merely accused of but later exonerated of," Martinez wrote in his decision. Noting that other prosecutors in the city attorney's office "have been convicted of alcohol-related offenses and yet kept their jobs," the judge blasted the city for violating Dawson's due-process rights and singling her out for dismissal.

Based on Dawson's $6,300-a-month salary at the time of her firing, the total amount of the back-pay award may well exceed $300,000. But she's still waiting for her check and a call back to work. Last week, the city appealed Martinez's order, arguing that the behavior that led to Dawson's 1998 arrest and a previous brush with police in 1996 provided more than sufficient grounds for her dismissal. The case raises thorny questions concerning the city's ability to dictate the off-duty conduct of its employees, as well as questions about whether the office that's supposed to seek justice for thousands of citizens can be fair to its own people.

"If you file a grievance against the city attorney's office, even if it's a minor employment thing, they flat-out refuse to negotiate," Dawson says. "You go to the mat. They certainly didn't do right by me, and they don't care. And it shows in how they work with the public, too."

Hired as an assistant city attorney in 1985, Dawson had achieved senior status in the office by the time of her firing. She had a long history of solid performance evaluations and an "excellent" relationship with her co-workers, she says. But her relationship with the city attorney was strained and ultimately ruptured by two off-duty incidents that Muse considered deeply embarrassing to his office.

In 1996, security guards at a Capitol Hill King Soopers detained Dawson and accused her of shoplifting a videotape and four packages of shrimp. According to store employees, Dawson was belligerent and appeared to have been drinking; she allegedly called one employee a "dumb asshole" and flaunted her prosecutor's credentials. The encounter resulted in a police summons and a four-week suspension from her job without pay.

Dawson insists she wasn't drunk that day. Years earlier, she'd been diagnosed as manic depressive, but her bipolar condition has been successfully treated, for the most part, with a regimen of daily medication. A letter from her doctor suggests that her uncharacteristic behavior at the supermarket may have been the result of mixing a new medication with "a modest amount of alcohol." In any event, the charges against her were dismissed after she produced a receipt showing that she had paid for the items in question.

At the time, Dawson declined to accept a proposed disciplinary action at work that would have resulted in a less severe suspension but required her to enter treatment for alcohol abuse. She did not believe that her drinking problem, which she'd admitted to some co-workers, was affecting her job performance. The following year, though, she voluntarily entered a treatment program and completed it. She was sober for almost two years, she says -- right up to the day of her second off-duty transgression.

On November 8, 1998, Dawson attended a Broncos game with a supervisor from her office. She drank several beers at the game. That evening, witnesses saw her car plow into a parked SUV in a Blockbuster parking lot. The police officer who responded to the scene found Dawson quietly sitting in her car "eating sushi from a plate." A breath test yielded a blood alcohol level of .193, well above the legal limit.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast