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Federal judge recommends dismissal of suit against Potsdam over junkyard enforcement

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POTSDAM — A federal judge has recommended dismissal of a town of Parishville junkyard owner’s lawsuit against the town of Potsdam in which he claimed he was denied due process when he was fined for violations at the yard.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew T. Baxter earlier this month ordered that all proceedings in James P. Engels’s case in U.S. District Court, Syracuse, be stayed until Senior Judge Norman A. Mordue acts on his recommendations.

Mr. Engels filed suit June 26 against the town and Potsdam Town Justice Samuel R. Charleson, as well as Parishville Town Justice Frank H. Dunning, Assistant St. Lawrence County District Attorneys Jonathan L. Becker and Joshua A. HaberkornHalm and state Department of Environmental Conservation Officer Jonathan D. Ryan.

Mr. Engels sought $50,000 in damages for what he claimed was mental anguish caused by having to appear in court more than 20 times over about a three-year period to answer charges that in 2007 he stored more than 1,000 waste tires in his yard, in violation of DEC regulations.

The case originally was slated to be heard in Parishville Town Court, but Justice Dunning recused himself and it was transferred to Potsdam Town Court.

Mr. Engels claimed in his complaint that Justice Dunning and Justice Charleson are “well acquainted” and that Justice Dunning “made it clear to the Potsdam town court and DEC what he would like for an outcome to this case.” He alleged that court appearances repeatedly were postponed “due to collusion” between the justice and prosecutors. In 2009, Mr. Engels admitted violating DEC regulations and was sentenced to a conditional discharge. However, a subsequent DEC violation was issued and Mr. Engels returned to court for violating terms of the conditional discharge and was fined $1,278 in December 2009. In his lawsuit, he claimed the conviction and the fine were “improper.”

In his recommendation, Judge Baxter said the action should be dismissed against Justice Charleson and Justice Dunning because both have judicial immunity for actions relating to the exercise of their judicial functions, while the case against the two assistant district attorneys should be dismissed because they have prosecutorial immunity.

Judge Baxter said, citing a 1994 Supreme Court action, that Mr. Engels cannot seek damages if a decision in his favor then would invalidate his criminal conviction, unless the conviction had been reversed on appeal, expunged by executive order or declared invalid by a state court.

The judge also said that the revocation of Mr. Engels’s conditional discharge and subsequent fine were not a violation of his due process rights.

Mr. Engels, who acted as his own attorney in the federal action, had sued the town of Parishville in state Supreme Court seeking $1 million in damages, claiming the town had discriminated against him and wrongfully closed down his business, but the case was dismissed in September 2011.

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