Yavapai County judge facing extreme DUI charges has questionable history on the bench

Arizona’s Family Investigates spoke with over two dozen people who appeared before Judge Cele Hancock in family court, accusing her of acting inappropriately.
Published: May. 11, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 11, 2023 at 9:58 PM MST

PRESCOTT, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Cele Hancock is off the bench after being charged with extreme DUI. The Arizona State Supreme Court has reassigned 200-plus cases. Arizona’s Family Investigates spoke with more than two dozen people who appeared before her in family court and accused her of acting inappropriately.

In our justice system, judges have a lot of power. In family court, they decide if parents get to live with or even see their children. “Judges have to be individuals in whom we trust, we can rely,” Paul Charlton, a former U.S. Attorney and career prosecutor said.

Hancock has been a judge in Yavapai County since 2010. “We got some reports that you were inside Safeway and you were stumbling, and you got back in your vehicle,” a Prescott police officer tells Hancock after he pulled her over.

Prescott police made the stop in March. Arizona’s Family Investigates obtained body-camera video of the stop and subsequent police station interview. “Have you been drinking today?” the officer asked. “No,” Hancock responded. “You haven’t been drinking today?” he asked again. “Oh no,” she explained.

Five minutes later, Hancock changed her story, admitting to drinking. “Couple of hours ago,” Hancock said. “How much did you drink?” the officer asked. “Couple of glasses of wine,” she responded.

She failed a field sobriety test, then told officers who she is. “I just feel bad. I just told that one, I’m a judge here,” Hancock said. “I’m just a person like anyone else,” she continued.

Following a breathalyzer test, she mentions her position of authority again. “Do you know I’m a judge here?” Hancock said. “I don’t want to use that. I don’t want to use that. I really don’t,” she explained.

She was charged with extreme DUI. Her blood alcohol on that Sunday afternoon was 0.219. “This is the biggest opportunity we ever had to right some wrongs,” Marie, a paralegal in the county, said. She didn’t want to give her last name. Soon after, more than 20 people, all of whom had gone before Judge Hancock in family court, came together. “It feels like finally, everybody is going to be heard,” April Hill, a mother, said.

They shared stories. Some said they’ve filed complaints with the Arizona Commission of Judicial Conduct. Arizona’s Family Investigates tried to verify that. But unless the commission chooses to act, the names of those involved, including the judge, are redacted. “Just her attitude and how emotional was during that proceeding and rude to my lawyer,” Joseph Hopkins, a father, said.

“The fear of retribution and retaliation like that shouldn’t exist in the justice system,” Kharma Lindsey, a mother, said. “If she doesn’t like what you have to say, she’ll make you know,” Amber Hildebrand, a mother, said.

Arizona’s Family Investigates went through hours of court hearings from the past couple of years. “It’s late in the day. I’m going to get cranky,” Judge Hancock said in one. In another, she tells a father, “You just crawl into the gutter with all the tweakers and junkies who sell their food stamps and diapers because that is the level you’ve reached.” In another, she gets personal. “I am divorced. I have an almost 11-year-old little girl. She often gets in my car and want to talk about her dad. I just change the subject,” she said.

This seems to be similar to the behavior that’s gotten her into trouble in the past. In 2016, the commission reprimanded Hancock for conducting a hearing without giving the parents notice. Recordings show she told the parents, “I don’t give a crap about any of you.” The commission determined Judge Hancock was “not patient, dignified, and courteous.”

Arizona’s Family Investigates asked Charlton how being patient and courteous is defined. “There’s a common sense definition for all of these things,” Charlton said.

According to the Arizona Commission of Judicial Conduct’s records, only a handful of judges get reprimanded each year out of several hundred complaints. It’s been nearly a decade since they’ve recommended a judge be removed or suspended.

As for Judge Hancock, the Arizona Supreme Court has tasked the Arizona Commission of Judicial Conduct with investigating the case. They will turn over their results to the Arizona Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide if Hancock remains on the bench. “She doesn’t make good judgments for herself. She shouldn’t be making good judgments for anybody else, any judgments for anybody else,” Hildebrand said.

A Yavapai County court clerk said Hancock is working on non-judicial duties. Those concerned parents said they plan to file a complaint with the commission. A recall effort is underway since voters elected Hancock to the position. Arizona’s Family Investigates called and emailed the judge several times but never heard back.