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FOX 13 Investigates: Moab Police officer investigated years ago searched suspect illegally, prosecutor says

Posted at 9:33 PM, Mar 30, 2021

MOAB, Utah — On Dec. 21, Moab Police Officer Steve Risenhoover didn’t like that a domestic violence suspect was putting his hands in his pockets.

Risenhoover’s body camera video shows he placed the 24-year-old man in handcuffs. About 90 seconds later, the officer reached into the suspect’s interior jacket pocket and removed two baggies with methamphetamine.

Prosecutors would later tell a judge that what Risenhoover wrote in affidavits didn’t match what was on camera and that the search of the suspect was illegal.

Those mistakes might not be such a big deal if not for Risenhoover’s previous history, says Jesse Nix, a Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney who reviewed the video and documents at the request of FOX 13.

“And if you’re a jury member,” Nix said, “I think what the kind of officer you want is someone who tells the truth and abides by the high standards of law enforcement. This guy is not it.”

“I think Moab is taking a big risk by employing this officer,” Nix added.

Moab Police Chief Bret Edge said in an email to FOX 13 that Risenhoover’s actions are being investigated but that he remains on full duty.

Attorney Nate Nelson represents Risenhoover. Nelson issued a statement:

  • “As this is an open investigation in an early stage, it would be inappropriate to comment; however we are aware the investigation has been turned over to the West Jordan Police Department and we will be following up with them as necessary. Like all U.S. citizens, police officers are entitled to due process and we intend to ensure all of the officer’s rights are safeguarded here.”

City Weekly, the Moab Sun News and the Moab Times-Independent chronicled concerns about Risenhoover in 2016 and 2017. After investigations from multiple agencies, most of the allegations were not sustained.

But there was one interesting finding. Risenhoover owed $4 million to the IRS – most of it stemming from a heating and cooling business he operated before he joined law enforcement.

An investigation from Vernal Police found Risenhoover had told the city of Moab’s human resources staff that paying taxes was voluntary; he instructed the city to not take taxes from his paycheck.

Documents show Risenhoover eventually reached a settlement with the IRS and repaid thousands of dollars owed to the state of Utah, too.

A 2017 letter from then-Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald to the Moab police chief said the tax debts and other concerns Fitzgerald had about Risenhoover’s truthfulness would raise questions about his veracity as a witness. Fitzgerald wrote that he would no longer call Risenhoover to testify and advised the chief that Risenhoover should not be allowed to write affidavits or handle evidence.

In 2019, Risenhoover received an award from the Utah Chiefs of Police Association for Officer of the Year for Small Departments. He was Moab’s lead officer when he responded to that possible domestic assault on Dec. 21, 2020.

Both the suspect and his girlfriend denied there had been any physical altercation. That’s one reason Nix sees problems with the way Risenhoover handcuffed and searched the suspect.

“It was an illegal arrest,” Nix said. “[The suspect] hadn’t done anything wrong at that point.”

“The reason the search was illegal,” Nix added, “was because he just reached in and pulled out whatever the defendant, the suspect had in his pocket. You can’t just do that. You have to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a crime and at that point the officer did not have that.”

There also were discrepancies between the body camera video and the affidavits Risenhoover wrote to book the suspect into jail and apply for a warrant to search his bedroom and car.

Risenhoover wrote that he turned around to see the suspect “reaching inside his now unzipped jacket to an inside pocket on his left side.” That seems to imply the suspect unzipped the jacket to hide or remove evidence. Yet video shows the jacket was unzipped when Risenhoover meets the man and remained that way through the encounter.

One of the officers who provided back up that day was a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. Risenhoover wrote that trooper found a butterknife he saw the suspect toss on the ground.

The trooper’s report makes no mention of a butterknife, which can be used to heat and consume drugs.

Then there’s Risenhoover’s description of seeing a bag in the suspect’s interior jacket pocket. While the body camera doesn’t necessarily record everything that was in Risenhoover’s vision, the footage shows how it would have been difficult for anyone to spot something in the suspect’s interior pocket.

“I don’t think he could see that bag from the distance they were at,” Nix said.

March 10, the office of Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan filed a motion to dismiss the charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

The motion said the “State has discovered there are substantial discrepancies between the arresting officers (sic) report and bodycam footage. Additionally, the arresting officer illegally searched the Defendant’s person.”

Nix said if the search and the inconsistencies in the affidavits were isolated incidents, Risenhoover might escape scrutiny from defense attorneys. But the current problems will be combined with the issues raised Fitzgerald pointed to in 2017.

“I would love to cross-examine this officer,” Nix said. “I would ask, ‘Officer, isn’t it true that in previous cases, there have been substantial discrepancies between your report and the body camera footage? Isn’t it true that you have illegally searched suspects before? And isn’t it true that cases have been dismissed because you compromised the evidence? How could we be sure that that’s not the case today?’”

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