The family from cable television's polygamous Sister Wives reality show has told a federal judge in Utah how much they've been hurt by the threat of prosecution under the state's bigamy law.
Kody Brown and his wives wrote in new court papers that they've lost jobs, were forced to move to Nevada, and suffered harm to their reputations after police launched an investigation last year after the fall 2010 launch of their TLC show.
In July, Brown and wives Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn filed a lawsuit challenging Utah's bigamy law in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court. They contended the law is unconstitutional and unfairly applied to polygamists.
"Because the Browns are open about their polygamist lifestyle, the criminal bigamy statute has the effect of publicly labeling them as presumptive felons," the Browns' Washington-based attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote in court papers filed Monday. "The statute further brands them as immoral and societal outsiders."
The papers were a response to a petition filed by the Utah Attorney General's Office asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. It wasn't clear Tuesday whether a judge would issue a decision based on the court pleadings or schedule a hearing for oral arguments.
State prosecutors contend the Browns, who haven't been charged, aren't facing real harm and won't likely face prosecution, because the state has rarely prosecuted individuals for bigamy without also prosecuting underlying crimes, such as underage marriages, abuse, or welfare fraud.
But the Browns said that the harms to their family are real and that the public statements of Utah County prosecutors actually support their contention that prosecution remains a threat. In one magazine article, for example, Deputy Utah County Attorney Donna Kelley said "the Browns have definitely made it easier for us by admitting to felonies on national TV."
Turley contended such statements had had a "chilling effect" on the family's right to free speech, influencing what they can say publicly or on their TV show, and curtailing their ability to practice their religion.
Affidavits from Kody, Meri, and Janelle Brown detailed financial impacts on the family. Those included a loss of sales accounts for Kody Brown and the termination of Meri Brown's employment because her bosses were concerned about the criminal investigation and the public statements suggesting she was a felon.
Our continued labeling as presumptive felons has proven a barrier in finding new positions for the adults in Nevada," Kody Brown stated in his affidavit. Other financial impacts included a loss of health insurance, moving expenses, increased housing expenses, and travel expenses because the Browns must travel back to Utah if they want to attend their church.
The Browns also stated that their children, more than a dozen of them, had also suffered at school, where some had endured remarks about their family being labeled criminals.
Under Utah law it is illegal for unmarried persons to cohabitate, or "purport" to be married. A person is also guilty of bigamy if he holds multiple legal marriage licenses.
The third-degree felony is punishable by up to five years in state prison. Both men and women can be prosecuted under the law, which also applies to unmarried, monogamous couples who live together.
Like most polygamists in Utah, Brown is legally married only to his first wife, Meri. He subsequently "wed" Janelle, Christine, and Robyn in religious ceremonies.
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