Federal judge charges US marshals in vaccination dispute

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — A federal judge in South Dakota on Monday criminally charged three members of the U.S. Marshals Service with contempt of court and obstructing justice after a dispute with a marshal who refused to disclose her COVID-19 vaccination status and removed prisoners from a courthouse.

Three supervisory marshals, including the agency’s Chief of Staff John Kilgallon, were accused of allowing a deputy marshal to leave the courthouse in Aberdeen, South Dakota, with prisoners in tow on May 10, after the marshal refused to tell the judge whether she had been vaccinated against COVID-19, the Aberdeen American News reported.

U.S. District Judge Charles Kornmann gave the U.S. Attorney’s Office until Friday to decide whether to charge the marshals, including Daniel Mosteller, the head of the agency in South Dakota, and Stephen Houghtaling, the state’s chief deputy. Kornmann said he was determined to find another prosecutor if the U.S. Attorney declined to prosecute the case.

Kornmann moved in March to require vaccinations for courthouse employees, but Mosteller, told the judge the Marshals Service was not requiring employees to get vaccinated and would not provide their vaccination status to the court.

The U.S. marshal who brought the first defendant into the courtroom last month refused to disclose her vaccination status. As a result, Kornmann told her to leave and pulled in a different deputy marshal to sit in the courtroom. Later that day, Houghtaling told Kornmann by phone that the remaining defendants scheduled for hearings had been removed from the courthouse because the marshals service didn’t think it could keep the courtroom secure without two marshals in the room.

Kornmann initially summoned the supervising officers to determine whether they would face civil contempt of court charges. But by the end of the hearing Monday, he had criminally charged the officers and accused them of kidnapping the prisoners. He also offered the officers an opportunity to admit wrongdoing and pay a $5,000 fine, but they declined.

The three officers were represented by U.S. Department of Justice attorneys who usually handle civil matters. The attorneys indicated the officers were in the process of obtaining criminal defense attorneys and would not comment in court.

The Marshals Service declined to comment on the charges.

The Marshals Service operates under the DOJ, an executive branch agency, but it is tasked with the protection and enforcement of federal courts. Federal law grants the Marshal Service “final authority regarding security requirements for the judicial branch.”

In a separate ruling last year, Kornmann, who was appointed under President Bill Clinton in 1995, slammed South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s response to the pandemic, writing that the state “has done little, if anything, to curtail the spread of the virus.”

A trial date for the three marshals has been set for Sept. 13.

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This story has been corrected to show the marshal removed prisoners from the courthouse, not the courtroom.

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