Utah speed traps spur police probe

Published July 07, 2012

| The Wall Street Journal

Small-town speed traps are legendary among travelers, who often suspect police of targeting tourists from other parts of the country to help fill local coffers. But officers in tiny Springdale, Utah, may have used their radar guns to pocket cash from foreign drivers they stopped, according to the state auditor.

Three police officers in Springdale, a popular gateway to Zion National Park, collected $11,640 from overseas visitors they stopped from January through October of 2011, a report from Utah State Auditor Auston Johnson found. The auditor maintains the collections during the stops were a violation of state law.

In addition, Johnson's report said his office found 138 citation documents—one-third of the total it examined—missing from local files with no record of what happened to any fines collected. The citations are easily tracked since they are numbered, officials from his office said. The report didn't name the officers.

"The possibility exists that officers could have written citations, collected the citation fines from defendants on the spot, destroyed the citations, and kept the money without anyone ever noticing," Johnson said in his report, released in June.

Washington County, where Springdale is located, referred the auditor's report to the Utah Attorney General's office for review of any criminal misconduct, said Ryan Shaum, deputy county attorney. "We did this in case of even a perceived conflict of interest," he said.

Paul Murphy, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general's office, confirmed receipt of that referral but declined to comment further.

Officials of Springdale, population 500, said they believed the attorney general's office would exonerate the police. "We feel confident that no criminal activity occurred," Kurt Wright, chief of the Springdale/Zion Canyon Police Department, said in a statement.

Patrol officers in the U.S. typically aren't authorized to collect cash fines, said former San Francisco Police Chief Anthony Ribera, now director of the International Institute of Law Enforcement Leadership at the University of San Francisco.

"Sometimes, particularly in small communities where they feel the individual may never come back, they may demand immediate payment," Ribera said, "But they would go to the court or police station" to pay.

A complaint from a Spanish tourist triggered the audit. Springdale, not far from Las Vegas, sees hordes of European tourists, especially in summer months, who drive through on the way to Zion, where the highway wends between stunning canyons walls.

The Spanish tourist reported in October 2011 that a Springdale officer issued her a traffic citation as she was driving through from Zion. She said the officer "said that she must pay the fine immediately and that it had to be paid in cash," Johnson said in his report, which doesn't identify the tourist. Mr. Johnson said he opened the audit, which covered only 2011, because it was so unusual to hear of police collecting fines.

"This is the first time I have heard of this happening, outside of Third World countries," Johnson said. An officer acting as "law enforcement, judge and jury by collecting cash" violates state and federal law, he wrote in his report.

Johnson said, "You don't want people afraid to deal with the police. You don't want them to shake you down for cash."

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