Three attorneys filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in state court Friday on behalf of what may be hundreds and perhaps as many as a thousand Utahns they say were stopped for minor traffic violations and then wrongly arrested for driving under the influence by former Utah Highway Patrol Cpl. Lisa Steed and other unnamed troopers.
Attorneys Robert B. Sykes and Michael P. Studebaker alleged during a press conference about the lawsuit that Steed is among a "portion" of troopers engaged in unconstitutional and law-breaking behavior aimed at making money for the state through fines, fees and forfeitures levied on those facing false charges. Attorney Lorenzo K. Miller also has clients who are joining the legal action.
Sykes said he believes the lawsuit will prove a "conspiracy within the highway patrol to propagate this kind of conduct," which he said had been "condoned and covered up for many years."
Dwayne Baird, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said the agency had not yet been served with the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation.
"It would be pending litigation and it would be inappropriate to discuss it anyway," he said.
The attorneys are seeking damages that could total as much as $20 million, as well as an injunction barring enforcement of the alleged unconstitutional policies.
They also want wrongful convictions based on statements made by Steed and any other troopers later identified to be overturned. In some instances, judges dismissed cases in which Steed was involved; in others, individuals took plea deals rather than fight the false accusations because of limited resources, the attorneys said. Several clients lost jobs because of the allegations, they said.
"This action by the highway patrol targets the poor," Sykes said.
The attorneys said they have so far identified more than 30 individuals who may be added to the lawsuit.
Thomas Romero is one of two plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. He was pulled over by Steed on Sept. 10, 2011, while driving to his home in Layton. Steed told Romero she had stopped him because he swerved and then accused him of being intoxicated, which he denied.
Steed asked Romero to perform a field sobriety test. Steed told him he had failed and asked him to take a breathalyzer test and later took a blood sample as he was booked into the Davis County Jail.
"I couldn't understand why I was getting arrested when all I had was something to eat and a can of Pepsi," said Romero, who said he does not drink alcohol or take drugs. "I told her she was making a big mistake."
Those tests, as well as a blood test he had taken at Davis Hospital after posting bail, all showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol in his system. The case was eventually dismissed but Romero had to spend about $6,000 fighting it. He also lost his truck, containing work tools, clothing and other personal items, because he could not afford to pay the fee after it was impounded.
But what hurt worse was the pain, worry and agony he and family members experienced, Romero said.
"People I love were mad at me," Romero said. "What this lady did to me wasn't right."
Julie Tapia's encounter with Steed occurred on July 31, 2011, in Clearfield. Tapia's ex-husband had called and asked her for a ride because he had been drinking. Tapia, a teetotaler, agreed and had just pulled into her driveway when Steed approached her.
Steed said Tapia, 52, had been speeding and then said she smelled alcohol. Tapia explained that her ex-husband had been drinking but she had not. Steed also suggested Tapia had been smoking marijuana, which Tapia also denied.
Steed asked Tapia to perform a field sobriety test; as she did, her ex-husband got out of the car and attempted to enter the house. Steed arrested him for public intoxication. Steed then told Tapia she had failed the field test and arrested her for DUI.
Tapia's daughter, who is incapacitated and uses a wheelchair also was in the car. On Friday, Tapia said Steed ordered the daughter to lift her shirt, revealing her bra, in a supposed check for drugs as a male officer who had arrived on the scene watched. Steed and that trooper later wheeled the daughter into the home and left her there without care, Skykes said. A brother found her on the bathroom floor the next day, where she had lain all night after falling from her wheelchair.
A blood test taken after Tapia's arrest showed no alcohol or drugs in her system. Cases against Tapia and her ex-husband were eventually dismissed, but they spent $7,000 fighting the allegations.
"I felt I was in Russia or something," Tapia said.
The attorneys also gave two examples of individuals who lost or were unable to get jobs after being stopped by Steed or another trooper and wrongly cited on DUI charges. One was a long-haul trucker, the other newly graduated from nursing school.
UHP began to investigate Steed's behavior in May 2010 when an internal memo noted a "pattern" of inconsistencies in her reports, but did not remove Steed from her post until last month after two judges reported she gave false testimony during court proceedings. The agency notified Steed on Nov. 1 it plans to fire her, but she is appealing that decision.
"The troubling part of this is her supervisors knew she was bad," Studebaker said of Steed, who was named the 2007 trooper of the year based on a high number of DUI arrests. In 2007, Steed tallied 200 DUI arrests.
Studebaker said that award should be revoked.