On Sept. 14, 2007, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Curry arrested 65-year-old Ken Watts for taking a binder of meeting minutes from the Oak Shores Community Association board of directors, documents any homeowner in the 626-home community has a legal right to view.
Watts spent the night in jail and during the past two and a half years has been at the center of a dispute so overblown even justices of the California Second District Court of Appeals had trouble rationalizing the case.
“It’s just gnawing at me reading this case,” Associate Justice Steven Z. Perren said during a May 6 hearing. “… This case is just wildly out of control.”
Watts was arrested for allegedly stealing board minutes from a homeowners’ association, but he is a member of the association and, in fact, had served as a director for several years beginning in the late 1990s. Furthermore, Watts returned the minutes—he argued that he had “borrowed” the minutes, which belonged to him anyway as a member of the association.
“I can’t be arrested for stealing my own property,” Watts told Curry, according to court documents.
The District Attorney’s Office filed two misdemeanor burglary charges, but the case was dismissed in less than three months. Roughly two and a half years later, Watts is still seeking compensation for what he believed was a “malicious prosecution.”
At the appellate hearing on May 6, it seemed as though Watts might win.
“A man went to jail. That’s serious stuff,” Justice Perren said at the hearing, adding that it would have been more appropriate to issue a citation.
Even the court’s written opinion hinted at a panel of befuddled judges who couldn’t understand why a dispute in a small private housing community had escalated to the Second District California Appellate Court: “A series of seemingly petty, yet niggling, acts fueled by anger and frustration precipitated this unfortunate lawsuit.”
Though the justices seemed to almost ridicule the case in court and the final opinion, Watts ultimately lost his appeal.
“As a matter of law, Curry had probable cause to arrest Watts,” the written decision continues. “… However ill-advised is the arrest from the perspective of hindsight, Curry is not liable.”
After his arrest, Watts filed a lawsuit against the homeowners’ association, the county, as well as some members of the association, seeking compensation for his attorney’s fees from the dismissed criminal charge. According to court documents, he was a 25-year member of the homeowners’ association at the time of his arrest. Leading up to the incident, Watts was reviewing board minutes for background on another lawsuit he was preparing against the association claiming the board of directors was implementing “illegal and inappropriate” fees on homeowners and essentially disregarding association regulations.
“It’s like they take creating these rules to suit their own needs,” Watts told New Times, adding that he had become a target after criticizing the association’s management.
Before the 2007 incident, Watts never had an issue reviewing minutes. He usually called ahead to notify the office what he was requesting. But when Annette Louder took over as general manager, Watts claimed he was required to make a formal request, and after about a month of waiting he was allotted two one-hour time slots to review the minutes on Sept. 13 and again on Sept. 20. However, Watts’ primary residence is in Santa Maria, leaving him faced with a 200-mile roundtrip for each session.
Watts didn’t go to either scheduled appointment. Instead, he drove to the office on Sept. 14, and grabbed the binder of minutes.
“He just got fed up with it,” Watts’ attorney Robert C. Burlison Jr. told New Times.
Louder confronted Watts in the parking lot. According to Louder’s and other statements, she told Watts she would call the Sheriff’s Department if he left and Watts yelled at her before getting in his car and leaving with the minutes. Watts claimed the interaction was much more passive and he believed his arrest was unwarranted.
“What you heard in the appeals court was very similar to what happened in the trial court in that everybody was confused why I was arrested,” he said.
Louder is no longer the general manager and has left the area. An office assistant would not say why Louder had left and responded that “she does not work here anymore. Absolutely not.”
Watts filed his lawsuit after the criminal case was dismissed, but through a series of motions and counter motions, he ultimately lost the case and had to pay the defendants more than $29,000 for their legal fees.
According to Burlison, Watts may still have an opportunity to bring his case back to the SLO County Superior Court because he believed Judge Charles Crandall didn’t issue a “final judgment.” Watts is continuing with his lawsuit against the homeowners’ association.
“They shouldn’t have reported [Watts],” Burlison said. “But they did—they called the police. The sheriff shouldn’t have arrested him, but he did. And then the [District Attorney] … shouldn’t have filed against him, but they did.” ∆
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.