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Salt Lake City Councilwoman faces ethics complaint with Utah State Bar for criticizing officers

FOX 13 Investigates: A Question of Ethics
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Posted at 9:47 PM, Sep 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-01 02:51:24-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler is facing a complaint with the Utah State Bar for publicly criticizing the two Salt Lake City police officers who shot and killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal on May 23, 2020.

Officers Kevin Fortuna and Neil Iversen have since been exonerated in separate investigations by the Salt Lake County District Attorney, the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board, and SLCPD internal affairs.

Now a new set of investigators with the Office of Professional Conduct are tasked with the responsibility of determining whether Fowler attempted to improperly influence the case.

Steven Winters, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, filed an ethics complaint with the Utah State Bar on behalf of the union. He cited Rule 8.4(c)(d) and (e) of the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct.

On June 6, 2020, prior to the conclusion of an investigation, Fowler posted on Facebook that she felt the two officers who shot Palacios-Carbajal acted inappropriately.

"I believe Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal was unlawfully killed and I am outraged,” she wrote. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that justice is served. There should be no special treatment for police and they should be held to the same standard as anyone else suspected of a similar act."

Palacios-Carbajal was an armed robbery suspect who dropped his gun and stopped to pick it up three times as he ran from officers.

Winters told FOX 13 he felt that Fowler’s post was “highly reckless” and “immature.”

“(Councilmembers) should stay out of it and let the criminal justice system work,” Winters said. “We expect the public to do that. We expect the officers to do that. Why should they be expected to do anything less than that? This is not a time to chime in and speak out of turn when you don’t know all the facts. That’s inherently dangerous for the public, for the officers, for everybody.”

Winters went on to state that, because Fowler is both an elected official and a criminal defense attorney, “she knows better” than to "interfere" with an active investigation.

"The general public will see those statements and believe that, because she's an attorney, she knows what she's talking about," Winters said. "She holds a public trust, and she violated that by speaking without knowing the facts."

In an interview with FOX 13, Fowler stated she did nothing wrong by publishing personal opinions on her personal Facebook page.

“Just taking the oath as an attorney does not strip me of my constitutional right for freedom of speech,” Fowler said. “I'm not an influencer... I’m pretty sure that Sim (Gill) didn’t check out my Facebook page before doing any sort of investigation. Or the West Valley Police. Or anyone else that was investigating.”

Fowler stated she did not regret making the social media post in any way. The message was not deleted.

“It’s horrible to see somebody be shot and killed on camera. Nobody wants to see that. It was devastating,” Fowler said. “I believe that the system is flawed."

When Fowler was asked what she meant by writing she "will do everything in (her) power to ensure that justice is served,” the councilwoman said she was mostly referring to police reform.

The Office of Professional Conduct did not respond to FOX 13’s request for comment. The office's policy is to not comment on active investigations.

“Clearly there has to be some type of sanction,” Winters said. “That would be up to them.”

Linda F. Smith, a law professor at the University of Utah, said she does not believe the investigation into Fowler’s conduct will go very far. Smith has spent much of her career teaching and studying the Rules of Professional Conduct and is not affiliated with this case.

“I’ve not seen any cases where a lawyer is disciplined for saying something negative about a police officer,” Smith said. “Clearly, this is a political issue.”

Smith indicated there is sometimes a difference between an individual’s personal code of ethics compared to the state code.

“If (the code) was just loosey goosey, make it up as you go along, it wouldn’t be appropriate to discipline lawyers,” Smith said. “I don’t think expressing an opinion can be seen as a misrepresentation. A misrepresentation has to be a factual misrepresentation — lying about something that one knows to be true… I don’t think this is going to get past the first screening.”

Fowler was previously enrolled in a class taught by Smith before graduating from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. Smith said having Fowler as a former student does not impact her analysis of the complaint.

“I can see why the police association was frustrated with this,” Smith said. “But expressing an opinion, even though it might be unwise isn’t lying… It was her opinion that (the shooting) was unlawful. I don’t think that’s a fact.”

“I think the citizens of her area are going to make that determination when it comes time for reelection,” Winters said. “She did not give those officers a fair shake.”

The Office of Professional Conduct does not make the results of an investigation public unless an attorney is found to be in violation.

"This is only public because the complaining individual, the police association, chose to make it public," Smith said. "I imagine that Amy Fowler, as a public figure, as a politician, will choose to make public the outcome."

"I am not offended," Fowler said. "I'm not thrilled about it, but it is why we have the process."

Related story: Family of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal files lawsuit against SLCPD