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Lawmakers say SLCPD wrongfully prosecuting gun owners at airport

One officer on administrative leave for refusing to issue citation
Posted at 5:43 PM, Jul 20, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of lawmakers are mad at the Salt Lake City Police Department for giving tickets to gun owners at the city's airport.

Now one officer could lose his job for trying to follow a law passed by Rep. Stephanie Gricius, R-Eagle Mountain.

Her bill, HB461, tried to make it so people who honestly forgot about the gun in their carry-on bag are no longer issued a citation.

“It’s purely accidental,” Gricius said. “99 percent of the time here in Utah, it’s not so you can hijack an airplane,.”

The police department testified against the bill. Lawmakers passed it anyway.

“As a gun owner, I believe you need to be responsible and have some idea of where your gun is,” said SLCPD Captain Stefhan Bennett at a hearing in February.

A group of six lawmakers led by Gricius now believe SLCPD has come up with a scheme to “circumvent” the law and write tickets anyway by reclassifying “mistakes” as “reckless possession.”

Lawmakers wrote a letter to SLCPD administrators on Wednesday seeking a legislative audit and an explanation at an upcoming hearing in August.

“We are writing today to express our deep concern,” the letters reads. “It has come to our attention that officials from your offices have proactively decided not to implement the changes in state law enacted in this bill and have created policies directly counter to the plain language of the law and the expressed intent of the Legislature.”

The letter goes on to label SLCPD’s actions as “wrongful prosecution” and “a gross miscarriage of justice.”

“I don’t think there’s any excuse for this. I think this is intentional,” Gricius said. “They need to adjust their policies to fit state law rather than trying to make state law fit their policies... The law is the law. Every law enforcement official, every prosecutor, should follow the law.”

Over the weekend, one SLCPD officer assigned to the airport tried to follow the law by refusing to write someone a ticket. He’s now under investigation and on administrative leave for failure to listen to orders.

The officer could lose his job. The union representing SLCPD officers is fighting to stop that from happening.

“If an officer believes that there’s no evidence that a crime existed, they have to let them go,” explained Joe McBride, president of the Salt Lake Police Association. “He should be rewarded for doing what’s right. He stood up for himself. He stood up for what he felt was right.”

A spokesperson for SLCPD Chief Mike Brown declined an interview and refused to address the internal affairs case, instead stating the department is “confident in our processes and the work of our officers.”

“We look forward to clarifying our compliance with HB461 with members of the State Legislature.”

McBride said he was disappointed with the department’s response and the impact their decision has made on the officer whose job is now on the line.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “If we support our officers, then support the officers.”

“You should lose your job for NOT following the law if you’re law enforcement,” Gricus said. “Not FOR following the law... I would love to shake (this officer’s) hand and tell him thank you for standing up and risking his employment. I know that’s a huge sacrifice. I would love to see him reinstated. I think that we need more officers like him who are willing to disregard unlawful orders.”

Not all lawmakers were critical of the department.

"Kudos to SLCPD for finding a way around this harmful policy," wrote Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City in a post on Twitter. "(Recklessness) sounds like a reasonable standard for someone BRINGING A GUN TO AN AIRPORT! I don't care that you forgot you left it in your bug out bag, if you've got enough guns lying around that you can't keep track of them all, that is reckless."

Recklessness is defined under Utah code as follows: “A person engages in conduct... recklessly with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor's standpoint.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who also received a copy of the letter, released the following statement:

“Our office takes it duty to prosecute violations of the law seriously. We have strictly complied with HB 461 since its effective date of May 3, 2023. HB 461 eliminated an officer’s ability to cite an individual for having a gun at the airport unless the person acted recklessly. Officers enforce HB 461 based on the facts and evidence in each situation. Our office reviews each case and decides if prosecution is appropriate under the law. Applying the new standard has led to a substantial reduction in cases filed and prosecuted under the new law.”

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