Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 10, 2010.
Cottonwood Heights » This town is known for its location against the mountains just minutes away from ski resorts. Now its police are gaining a reputation for cracking down on drunk drivers. In the two years since Cottonwood Heights left the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and began its own police force, officers have been arresting suspected drunk drivers at twice the previous rate.
Cottonwood Heights Police Chief Robbie Russo said his department has focused on drunk drivers and requires every officer — from beat cops through the detectives — to undergo special training on administering drunk driving tests. Russo said even he has stopped three or four suspected drunk drivers since Cottonwood Heights began its own police department in September 2008.
“DUIs and crimes against women have always been near and dear to me,” said Russo, saying he thinks about the safety of his own two daughters on the road.
Yet one bar owner thinks some of the arrests are designed to hurt his business. Canyon Inn owner Jim Stojack has accused police of targeting his business by frequently pulling over people in his parking lot and following customers as they leave his bar and grill, which sits at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Stojack calls it “harassment” and said customers are afraid of being stopped by police. He said May sales have declined 47 percent from the same month in 2009.
Stojack and his staff have asked customers to sign petitions asking police to stop targeting Canyon Inn, though they have not submitted them to the city. Stojack and the bar staff also have taken to photographing or video recording police who pull into the parking lot or stop motorists in front of Canyon Inn.
Stojack said he believes Cottonwood Heights city government wants him to sell to developers building what will eventually be a hotel, residential and retail center behind Canyon Inn on Wasatch Boulevard. Stojack claims a real estate agent representing the development’s owner, Kevin Gates, in 2007 threatened to make Cottonwood Heights do the “dirty work” if Stojack did not sell.
“I’m the last person who wants to put a drunk on the street, but this isn’t what they’re doing,” Stojack said. “They want the business.”
In separate interviews, both Gates and real estate agent Marty Plunkett, denied that claim. Gates acknowledged inquiring about purchasing Canyon Inn in 2007, but decided not to pursue buying the property. Stojack said he did not want to sell. Gates said he has not spoken to city leaders about Canyon Inn.
Russo has heard the complaints from Stojack.
“We don’t want his property,” Russo said.
Data show Cottonwood Heights police visited Canyon Inn or received a call from there 83 times from September 2008 through early June of this year. The other Cottonwood Heights bar near the mouth of the canyons, Hogs Wallow, had 76 such visits or calls.
Three of those Canyon Inn cases are listed as suspected drunk drivers, but the data do not reflect drivers who might leave Canyon Inn and get pulled over elsewhere. Cottonwood Heights police Sgt. Scott Peck, however, said his officers don’t sit outside bars waiting for drunk drivers.
“If you’re going to watch someone and know they’re intoxicated, why not stop them from driving when they get in the car?” Peck said.
Tuesday night is dance night at Canyon Inn and attracts a crowd in their early 20s. On consecutive Tuesday nights last month, the only officer seen parking and watching in the vicinity of Canyon Inn was a Utah Highway Patrol trooper.
Some still feel Cottonwood Heights police have been too aggressive in stopping motorists. Joshua Knighton said he drank one beer and drove away from the Canyon Inn on Jan. 6. On Wasatch Boulevard on his way to Interstate 215, a Cottonwood Heights officer pulled over Knighton after seeing him cross the center line.
A police report says Knighton admitted smoking marijuana about two weeks earlier, being around friends who were smoking it four hours earlier and receiving what he called a “contact high.” Knighton was cited at the scene for driving under the influence and crossing the center line.
But reports also show Knighton blew a 0.00 blood-alcohol level in a breath test. His blood was drawn at the scene and later tested negative for all drugs. But Knighton said the officer kept telling him he had to be on drugs. Knighton, a 34-year-old who says he was discharged from the U.S. Navy due to a personality disorder, said he acts hyper and talks fast when he’s under stress. Also, Knighton said, a bad leg contributed to a poor performance on a field sobriety test.
The DUI charge was dismissed and Knighton pleaded guilty to the lane violation. But the state of Utah suspended his license while the DUI charge was pending and said Knighton, who did not hire an attorney, missed his deadline to appeal. Knighton was laid off for unrelated reasons after the stop and says the suspended license has hampered his efforts to find employment.
“I’m trying to get my life back but I don’t know what to do,” Knighton said, who on Friday had a warrant for his arrest for failing to pay his fine for the lane violation.
Russo said officers who cited Knighton took into account the totality of the circumstances, including Knighton’s driving pattern and his admission to having been in the presence of marijuana. A few other citizens have complained about being pulled over, he said, but most support the effort.
“It’s pretty easy to defend if you’re out there getting DUIs,” Russo said.
DUIs on the rise
• In the final 12 months it policed Cottonwood Heights, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported 118 arrests for suspected driving under the influence there.
• The Cottonwood Heights Police Department was established in September 2008 and reported 215 DUI arrests in its first 12 months. The number has increased to 248 arrests in the past 12 months.