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New reports fuel debate of whether Lisa Steed arrested innocent drivers

Published October 20, 2013 5:58 pm

UHP • Memo provides new arguments for all sides in embattled trooper's case.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Taylorsville • On Oct. 23 of last year, Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Steve Winward sent a memo about the performance on probably the most controversial trooper in the agency's history: Cpl. Lisa Steed.

Earlier in the month, The Salt Lake Tribune published a UHP memo, dated two years earlier, suggesting Steed was falsifying reports and arresting drivers who showed no signs of impairment. But Winward's review was much more complimentary to Steed.

Of 752 arrests Steed made for driving under the influence in 2009 and 2010, Winward reported, there were only 15 cases in which toxicology tests did not find the presence of drugs. In all but one of those cases, Steed documented some other reason for suspecting recent drug use, such as the driver admitting to using methamphetamine or the smell of marijuana in the car.

UHP's commander, Col. Daniel Fuhr, in a recent interview at the patrol's headquarters in Taylorsville, stood by Steed's firing over her court testimony, but maintained there was no evidence Steed falsified driving-under-the-influence reports or arrested innocent people.

"Her DUI arrests are sound," Fuhr said.

Whether Steed, 35, profiled and arrested innocent people, particularly Latinos and the poor, is expected to undergo more scrutiny in November when Steed gives a deposition in the proposed class-action civil rights lawsuit. Attorneys are suing UHP and Steed, seeking damages that could total $20 million for a yet-undetermined number of plaintiffs.

This month, UHP provided The Tribune with more documents about Steed, including the Winward review and the internal affairs investigation undertaken before her firing last year. In the internal affairs investigation, UHP found prosecutors who had received complaints about the former trooper of the year, but some of those same prosecutors also praised Steed's work.

Steed's attorney, Greg Skordas, said the findings reinforce what he has argued: That Steed made few mistakes and UHP overreacted by firing her.

"She was investigated by outside agencies, but nobody could find she was dishonest," Skordas said, referring also to a perjury investigation by the Utah County attorney that resulted in no charges.

The FBI also is investigating Steed.

Criminal defense attorney Neal Hamilton, however, questioned whether UHP was interested in finding the truth. He said when a UHP internal affairs investigator called him on Sept. 5, 2012, the investigator asked who else knew about some of the specific accusations surrounding Steed.

"The impression I had speaking to them was they were more concerned the cat was out of the bag than the allegations had been made," Hamilton said Wednesday.

Hamilton, who is the current president of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, confirmed one item mentioned in the report: He and other defense attorneys produced a DVD compilation of Steed. Hamilton said the DVD shows instances where Steed is seen on her own dashboard camera video committing what he says are violations of UHP policy and sometimes civil rights. Hamilton declined to provide a copy to The Tribune. The UHP report says Hamilton declined to provide it to investigators, too.

The internal affairs investigation examined whether Steed committed perjury in a court hearing on March 27, 2012. She testified about an episode in 2010 when she removed a microphone from her belt and then administered a portable breath test before UHP protocols called for it. She told Judge Kouris' courtroom she removed the microphone so Winward, then one of her supervisors, wouldn't find out she issued the breath test, but UHP records indicated she had earlier told her sergeant she didn't know why she removed the microphone.

While the UHP investigation found the statements to be in conflict, Fuhr did not find enough evidence to say the discrepancy met the criminal definition of perjury.

Fuhr did find that the ruling from Kouris, and the refusal of prosecutors in Salt Lake and Davis counties to prosecute cases where Steed was the lone witness, jeopardized the public trust in Steed and UHP. Those concerns were cited in Steed's termination letter in November.

But the investigation report also made brief references to issues defense attorneys have raised. Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings and his chief deputy, David Cole, said 98 percent of Steed's cases were good, but they had problems with Steed's audio and video equipment not working properly during traffic stops. Rawlings and Cole also said defense lawyers complained that Steed would claim to smell marijuana but then no marijuana would be found in their clients' cars.

Josh Player, a deputy Salt Lake County attorney, acknowledged reviewing the DVD Hamilton and other defense attorneys made in 2012. Player told the UHP investigator he did not feel the DVD was evidence of credibility problems with Steed. Player acknowledged receiving other complaints from defense attorneys about Steed's microphone or camera being off or Steed moving the suspect out of view of the camera.

Player, through Salt Lake County Chief Deputy District Attorney Blake Nakamura, declined to comment. Nakamura cited the ongoing litigation involving Steed as the reason Player was declining to speak.

Robert Sykes, the lead attorney in the potential class-action lawsuit, said the internal affairs investigation shows what he has already argued in court filings: That Steed had a pattern of not recording the driver until she already made the traffic stop, so a judge and jury wouldn't be able to see whether the driver was really weaving or violating another traffic law to give Steed probable cause to stop the car — something that's required even if the driver turns out to be drunk. Then Steed would fail to record her interview with the driver or the sobriety tests if she did something out of UHP policy, Sykes said.

"It happens so frequently that it suggests fraud," Sykes said. "It suggests dishonesty."

UHP Maj. Mike Rapich, in the same interview as Fuhr, said he only knows of one instance in which Steed's camera was not mounted properly, and that was the same incident in which Steed was disciplined for not having her microphone on.

That video, also shared with The Tribune, shows Steed's camera was off or aimed at her car's floor until after the suspect was already stopped. Then Steed put the camera back into its proper position on the dash before administering the field sobriety tests.

As for the concerns defense attorneys shared with prosecutors, Fuhr said they were never forwarded to UHP headquarters and administrators there only learned of them through the internal affairs investigation in 2012.

"Whenever we had a complaint, we would call around and ask how she's doing," Fuhr said.

Prosecutors, Fuhr added, always answered, "She's a star."

UHP conducted 11 prior internal affairs investigations into Steed before the one undertaken in 2012. The first internal affairs investigation was in 2004, two years after she began with UHP. The allegations ranged from improper procedure — which Rapich said could be as minor as rudeness — to excessive force and false arrest.

Only in the 12th case were any of the allegations against Steed sustained. Rapich acknowledged 12 internal affairs investigations were on the "upper limit" of what you would expect from a trooper of Steed's tenure, but emphasized the number can be skewed by how much time a trooper spends on the road and dealing with the public as opposed to a desk assignment.

Skordas said the prior investigations are not relevant.

"If people complain about her, that's one thing," Skordas said, "but if it's not sustained, you have to give her the benefit of the doubt."

In his 2010 memo, Sgt. Rob Nixon said he reviewed 20 of Steed's arrests for driving under the influence of drugs and found in seven of those cases, toxicology tests showed the driver had only a low amount of drugs, referred to as metabolite. Four other drivers had no drugs in their system, according to Nixon's memo.

Yet in every case, Steed wrote reports claiming the drivers showed signs of impairment, such as dilated pupils and leg and body tremors. Nixon referred to "a pattern" of conflicting information between Steed's arrest reports and the laboratory results and said: "This is something that needs to be addressed before defense attorneys catch on and her credibility along with the DUI squad's credibility is compromised."

UHP last year said they addressed some of Nixon's concerns with Steed, but apparently no formal review was done until Winward undertook it.

Fuhr said the Winward review demonstrates Steed always had cause to suspect the person she arrested was impaired or otherwise not supposed to drive. Even in the few cases where the toxicology tests did not reveal drugs, an admission of recent drug use or other suspicious signs could be used as evidence to convict someone of a charge of driving with a controlled substance in their system.

Also, the Nixon memo has been misinterpreted, Fuhr said. Nixon was not accusing Steed of arresting innocent people, but rather saying she sometimes arrested people on suspicion of the wrong charge. Utah has separate offenses for drivers under the influence of drugs and those who only have drugs in their system.

Nixon's memo also described helping Steed arrest a man who showed little sign of impairment, but whom Steed reported to be exhibiting dilated pupils and tremors. Fuhr said Nixon got that case wrong, and pointed to documents saying the driver admitted to using meth two days earlier, and was "pretty hooked." Documents indicated he tested positive for meth. Steed's report said she also found a baggy with white powder and a pipe with meth residue.

The court case was not so cut-and-dried. After that driver was charged in Salt Lake County Justice Court with misdemeanor DUI, drug possession and two traffic violations, charges were dismissed in 2011. A court docket says the prosecutor dismissed the charges for "evidentiary reasons." Attorneys in the case did not respond to messages seeking a further explanation. UHP did not make Nixon available for an interview with The Tribune.

Hamilton said he has been unable to determine how many of Steed's arrests resulted in successful prosecutions. UHP has said it does not have those numbers.

UHP is having to defend Steed in the civil rights lawsuit. Fuhr, who may give a deposition in that case, expressed frustration at news reports saying Steed was fired for making false arrests. She was fired for problems with her testimony, and UHP, Fuhr said, has not found evidence Steed manufactured evidence.

"When these stories go out," Fuhr said of the false arrest allegations, "it hurts every single trooper."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle