David Beauvais: Defender of the First Amendment

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 28, 2006

David Beauvais loves the First Amendment.  

And the more controversial the lawsuit surrounding it happens to be, the better he says his chances are of winning it. 

When two sidewalk chalk artists were arrested for vandalism in the early 1990s after chalking political messages on a sidewalk in Berkeley and Oakland, Beauvais came to their rescue.  

He went on to defend both the cases on grounds of First Amendment rights and they were subsequently settled for a total of $40,000. 

Beauvais has also represented dozens of protesters arrested at demonstrations. Of those charged, only one was convicted for simple assault while two went to jury trials in Berkeley and won acquittals. The other cases were all dismissed. 

Born in New Jersey in 1952, Beauvais graduated from the American University in Washington D.C. with a B.A. in political science in 1973 and went on to study law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. 

He began his practice in 1978 in Sacramento and later worked in Fresno, Irvine, Berkeley, and Oakland. 

“I remember being fascinated by law. I took up anything that walked in through the door back then,” he said. 

Beauvais also served as judge pro tem of the juvenile court in Fresno in the mid ’80s. 

Today, Beauvais dabbles in both civil rights as well as juvenile dependency cases dealing with violations in the Child Protection Services (CPS). 

On March 31, a federal jury in Sacramento returned a verdict of $2.6 million against the City of Stockton for violating the constitutional rights of Crystal Keller (aged 4 years in 2002, the year of the case) and her father Dennis Keller of Fair Oaks, California, when they took the child into police custody without a warrant. 

Beauvais served as case counsel in the case which involved the Stockton police receiving a complaint in July 2002 about how Crystal was being abused in her mother’s home where she was spending alternate weeks as part of a joint custody agreement granted after her parents separation.  

Officer Ernie Alverson of the Stockton Police responded to the complaint by putting Crystal under her father’s care and forwarding his report to Sgt. Ken Praegitzer who assigned the case to Detective Kathryn Henderson. 

Two days later and just 72 hours short of her fifth birthday, Crystal was removed from her father’s care and placed under protective custody by Henderson with approval from Praegitzer.  

Detective Henderson’s explanation for taking Crystal was that “the father was in violation of the custody order by keeping Crystal when the mother was supposed to have her.” 

Beauvais argued that “Henderson was not enforcing the custody order by taking Crystal from both parents.” 

Instead, he suggested, “Henderson could have gotten an emergency protective order to give the father full custody while the allegations against the mother were investigated.” 

The jury ruled that since Crystal had been in no danger of physical abuse in her father’s care, a warrant should have been used to remove her. The jury further ruled against the City of Stockton for “failing to have a policy in place that protects children from lawless seizures.”  

According to Beauvais, cases like this are not unusual.  

“The City of Stockton does not tell its officers what it can do. But it’s not just Stockton. Children everywhere are often removed from their parents without a warrant when one should be obtained. I found out about this problem when I represented a Berkeley family in 2000. We settled with Alameda County for $4000,000. Later, I discovered that these illegal removals are pandemic and not just limited to Alameda County.” 

Alameda County was forced to change its policy in 2000 after this particular case and currently a child has to be in immediate danger of bodily injury or death from his surroundings to be removed from his parent’s care without a warrant.  

Beauvais stated that systemic corruption in the child welfare system was a common occurrence. 

“Social workers have impossible case loads and are often poorly trained. Parents are often tricked or intimidated into agreeing to a watered-down version of the petition filed against them,” he said. “Courts too often rubber-stamp CPS recommendations and hearings are confidentially held. There is no public access and no media scrutiny. Once in the system, parents are well on their way to losing their parental rights. The system cracks down disproportionately on poor people without resources to hire attorneys and experts to counter CPS. Study after study has shown that poor people are no worse as parents than those in other socioeconomic groups.” 

Beauvais also said that county agencies received payment for each child they removed from the parents as well as bonuses from the federal government for each child they managed to have adopted. 

“Perverse federal funding incentives reward counties for removing children unnecessarily from their homes. Social workers often turn out to be creative writers of reports,” he pointed out. 

Beauvais spoke of a recent incident where the father had told the social worker that he had smoked a joint with the mother on their first date. Although there was not her evidence of drug use, the social worker wrote in her report several paragraphs later that "both parents have a history of using drugs." 

Beauvais is currently involved in the “Heil Krohn” case where he represents a homeless activist in Santa Cruz who was arrested at a Santa Cruz city council meeting for making “a silent, fleeting Nazi salute toward the mayor (Christopher Krohn) after the mayor interrupted a speaker and cut off public comment.” 

Although the mayor did not notice the gesture another council member did. “At that point my client was told to leave the meeting or be arrested. He refused to leave and was arrested,” Beauvais said. 

Although a federal judge in San Francisco dismissed Beauvais’s client’s federal civil rights action case for “false arrest and violation of his first amendment rights,” it was later reinstated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case is currently awaiting trial. 

When he’s not fighting civil rights cases, Beauvais enjoys traveling to third world countries—especially Central and South America. He recently returned from Peru and Bolivia and said he can’t wait to get back to discover more about his latest interest—ancient rituals and practices of shamanism in the Peruvian Amazon. 


Photograph by Hans Barnum 

David Beauvais (left) with law student intern Steve De Caprio (right) and office fashion trendsetter, Parker (center).