Springdale officials acquitted, but court still waits for ticket money
Criminal charges against Springdale's city manager and police chief have been dismissed, but while the officials are no longer accused of bypassing the town's justice court in their collection of fines from foreign tourists, the court hasn't yet seen payment on potentially thousands of citations.
In February, Springdale City Manager Rick Wixom and Police Chief Kurt Wright were charged with third-degree felony counts of failure to keep public money, based on allegations that the two had presided over the Springdale Police Department's practice of taking money from foreigners whom officers pulled over for traffic offenses instead of having the drivers pay through the court, which would collect 25 percent of those funds before letting the city use the rest.
On Wednesday, Wixom and Wright saw those charges dismissed after a preliminary hearing in which 5th District Judge Wallace Lee said he couldn't find any evidence that anyone in the town's leadership knew the practice was illegal.
But the Hurricane Justice Court had reminded Wright about the proper collection of fines as early as 2007, close to five years before the cash-on-demand program landed the town in legal trouble.
Hurricane Justice Court Judge Karlin Myers sent a letter to the chiefs of Springdale, LaVerkin and Rockville which all used Hurricane's court at the time based on an unrelated allegation about someone asking an officer to waive a traffic ticket. Myers' letter also informed the chiefs of a state audit's recommendation that the court do a better job of keeping track of all the citations coming into the court.
"On a similar note," the letter continues, "please be advised that every citation issued must be sent to the court."
Myers then reminded the chiefs of a state law that requires all citations written by officers to be filed at court within five days.
But Springdale, a tiny town that sits at the edge of Zions National Park, hosts millions of tourists every summer and had a unique problem with foreign tourists not paying their tickets before returning to their countries. During Wednesday's preliminary hearing, witnesses testified that Wright claimed to have gotten permission from former Hurricane Justice Court Judge Richard Carr to collect cash from foreigners on the spot.
Carr, now retired, said Thursday that he never approved any such practice.
"I was a law enforcement officer in California for 25 years," Carr said. "I never heard of such a thing as collecting money from any tourists on the highway."
The closest Carr came to having any kind of conversation about how to deal with foreign tourists was when he suggested to Hurricane's police chief not to Wright that an officer could perhaps follow a tourist who wanted to pay their ticket on the spot to the justice court, where it would be handled from there.
"But I told them: One thing that you must not do is ever touch the money," Carr said. "It's just an absolute no-no."
It remains unclear exactly who was responsible for the idea or when it was first implemented. During the preliminary hearing, one former Springdale officer, Michelle Johnson, who worked part time for the department between 2003 and 2008, said she had been trained to take cash from tourists since she first started. Court documents quote Wright as saying that the practice started sometime between 2005 and 2006, when he was on sick leave. Springdale Treasurer Dawn Wallace testified in court that she began taking in officers' citations at the direction of Wixom, her boss, in 2006.
Wright and Wixom did not return requests for comment, but Springdale Mayor Pat Cluff said Saturday that she, and most of the town, believed Wright and Wixom were innocent.
"What we felt like happened was a miscommunication," Cluff said. "I don't even know how it happened. Nobody does."
But Cluff said the affair has been a learning experience. She now requests weekly reports from the Police Department on how it handles its collection of fines.
"We're just trying to stay on top of things so that there aren't any more mistakes," Cluff said. "I think this has been a huge lesson for us."
Cluff said the town is in the middle of sorting through an independent audit of the citations, and appropriate fees, that are still owed to Hurricane Justice Court. Once that audit is complete, the town will pay back everything it owes to the Hurricane Justice Court, Cluff said. She said the town also plans on paying for Wright's and Wixom's legal defense.
The court's administrator, Sandra Bailey, said so far Springdale has only paid back $11,000, an amount derived from an investigation the state auditor's office did in 2012 as it was gathering evidence for the criminal charges against Wright and Wixom. The audit covered only a sample of citations spanning all of 2011 when the practice was stopped.
"There are still unresolved issues, loose ends that need to be tied up," Bailey said Thursday.
The state looked at 423 citations in its sample but found that 138 more, about 33 percent, were missing from that batch, according to the citations' numerical order system. The missing citations were a cause for concern, according to a report the state sent to the town in June 2012.
"[T]he possibility exists that officers could have written citations, collected the citation fines from the defendants on the spot ... destroyed the citations and kept the money without anyone ever detecting," the report reads.
Cluff denies anything like that happened. Some citations did go missing, she said, because some officers, many of whom were hired seasonally, accidentally took the citations with them when they left. In its investigation, the state was unable to find any evidence of officials pocketing money collected through citations.
But the process itself was still improper and against the law, Bailey said, and Springdale should have known that.
"I would just hate to see this case be set as a precedent," Bailey said, "to allow law enforcement to do what Springdale did and get away with it."