A ruling by a circuit judge may absolve a general district judge of claims that he misused his judicial status in a property dispute with a neighbor.
The decision from retired Circuit Judge William N. Alexander II appears to provide cover for Botetourt County General District Judge William H. Cleaveland, who sought a quiet settlement after his neighbor accused him of malicious prosecution.
Cleaveland had brought charges against the neighbor of unlawful entry and damage to property when the neighbor reportedly mowed the ground cover on a section of disputed property.
The criminal charges later were dropped by a special prosecutor, and the neighbor then claimed Cleaveland had abused his position to have the neighbor arrested.
Cleaveland denied any wrongdoing.
The roots of the conflict go back 26 years, according to a brief filed in court.
In 1991, Cleaveland and his wife planned to buy a lot in a new subdivision just inside Botetourt County in the Roanoke suburbs. Seeking a better view, Cleaveland told the developer he wanted to put his house at the very back of the lot he was buying. He asked for title to an additional sliver of land to allow for a carved-out level space.
The developer’s lender reportedly balked at releasing its lien on the disputed slice of land, so the Cleavelands never got the added parcel for their lot.
Nevertheless, the Cleavelands treated the contested area as their own, they said in their brief. Attempts at erosion control on the steeply sloped land largely failed until the couple planted cypress trees and periwinkle in the late 90s.
Michael Vaughn and his wife moved onto the adjoining lot in 2009 and, after a spat over a storage shed, the Vaughns contested the Cleavelands’ claim to the disputed property. The Cleavelands asked a judge to declare they acquired the land by adverse possession.
The Cleavelands’ lawyer took the deposition of Michael Vaughn in March of 2015. The next day, Vaughn reportedly used a riding lawn mower to cut down the periwinkle that served as erosion control on the disputed parcel.
Cleaveland sought criminal charges. Cleaveland said he feared the neighbor, motivated by spite over the long simmering property dispute, might return to cut down the cypress trees.
The local magistrate, aware of Cleaveland’s judicial status, stepped aside. Cleaveland said he spoke by video connection with a magistrate in Nelson County. Cleaveland contended there was no evidence that the Nelson magistrate knew of Cleaveland’s position as a judge.
The magistrate issued arrest warrants, and officers arrested Vaughn in front of his family.
After the charges were nol prossed, Vaughn sued Cleaveland for $850,000, claiming malicious prosecution. He said Cleaveland abused his status to have Vaughn arrested on a warrant, rather than merely being summoned to court for the misdemeanor charges.
Cleaveland later argued, based in part on Vaughn’s deposition testimony, that Vaughn had no evidence of any attempt by Cleaveland to throw around his weight as a judge.
The warring neighbors worked out a courthouse-steps deal on April 5. The Cleavelands would get nearly unfettered access to the disputed parcel and the malicious prosecution claims were dropped.
Other terms of the settlement were confidential, but Alexander, as judge designate, was asked to rule on Cleaveland’s pending motion for partial summary judgment.
On April 14, Alexander granted partial summary judgment for Cleaveland, rejecting the allegation that the judge misused his position to have arrest warrants issued against Vaughn.
In his order, Alexander made a finding that Cleaveland “did not use or misuse his status or authority as a judicial officer of the Commonwealth of Virginia, in any way, in connection with any fact or issue asserted” by Vaughn.
Cleaveland can expect to use Alexander’s finding to address any possible claims of unethical conduct before the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission.
Cleaveland said in an interview he reported the malicious prosecution claim to JIRC and kept officials advised of the status of the case.
The neighborhood dispute also could provoke questions from legislators when Cleaveland is up for another six-year term as a district judge in 2019. His current term expires in January of that year.
Cleaveland served one term as a state delegate, stepping aside in 2011 due to family commitments. His wife suffers from a terminal disease.
He was appointed to the district court bench by circuit judges in 2012 and elected to a full term by the 2013 General Assembly.
Cleaveland was represented by J. Scott Sexton of Roanoke. Vaughn was represented by Chris K. Kowalczuk of Roanoke.