West Valley City leaders said Wednesday they plan to review nearly 100 cases that have been dismissed by the state's federal and district courts and may consider refiling at least some of the felony cases as misdemeanors.
But Utah defense attorneys say it would be a massive mistake to refile up to 98 cases already deemed by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and U.S. Attorney' Office to be so flawed they can't be prosecuted and questioned whether it would be a good use of the city's time and resources.
"I think that would be a colossal waste of time and, second, absolutely unfair [to defendants]" said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The best thing [the city] could do is to just let this go and try to improve their police force. I think [Salt Lake County District Attorney] Sim Gill has shown a lot of integrity in what he's done and West Valley should do the same."
West Valley City spokesman Aaron Crim had no comment on the defense attorney's opinions, but noted that the city's newly created Special Review Panel will provide a neutral review of nearly 100 cases involving the city's now disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
The goal of the independent panel is to recommend policy changes. But it could also suggest which cases, if any, could be refiled as misdemeanors either in the city's justice court or in 3rd District Court where many of the cases were originally filed as felonies.
Justice courts handle only class B and C misdemeanors and infractions. City prosecutors also could refile the cases as class A misdemeanors in district court without first screening them with Gill's office.
City Manager Wayne Pyle has said that while the review panel won't focus specifically on which cases can be salvaged, it would be a "side benefit" if they could still pursue prosecution of the alleged crimes.
City prosecutor Ryan Robinson did not return messages seeking comment on whether his office would potentially consider refiling any of the dismissed cases.
"We're putting this together for a recommendation from a neutral party, and if the recommendation is to move forward with misdemeanor charges, [we'll look at that]," Crim said.
The review panel was formed after West Valley City police announced it had placed nine officers on leave all of whom had been affiliated with the disbanded narcotics unit.
Gill's office has refused to prosecute 88 cases linked to the unit and the U.S. attorney's office has dismissed 10 cases. All those cases will be reviewed by the panel, Crim said.
Most of the dismissed cases involve drug-related offenses.
The FBI also is investigating allegations of corruption pertaining to members of the unit and the fatal officer-involved shooting death of a 21-year-old woman during an alleged drug deal.
City leaders have said that an internal audit of the Police Department's narcotics unit unearthed a number of problems, including mishandling evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation and the possibility of missing drugs and money.
City officials also said that seized items, such as loose change or a CD in a seized vehicle, were improperly accounted for and that officers kept "trophies" from drug busts for themselves and for use as training aids.
"If I'm a defense lawyer and I know that the district attorney has dropped a case because they think there's evidence problems, I'm all over that, and to get a conviction is going to be very difficult," Hart said.
Gill said Wednesday that the decision to dismiss the cases was based in part on information shared by the West Valley City attorney's office, and those attorneys are aware of the limitations associated with prosecuting the cases.
But Gill added that the city is entitled to do what it wants in terms of filing misdemeanors.
David Shapiro, an attorney with Shapiro & Shapiro, said the burden of proof is the same whether a case is filed in district or justice court.
Shapiro said that potentially refiling the cases in West Valley City's Justice Court "clogs up a court that isn't meant to do that. When you put them in that role, you're going to slow down that process and delay [proceedings for everyone else]."
He said the justice courts are designed for cases like DUIs, domestic violence and possession of small amounts of marijuana not cases that will generate complex evidence questions and legal motions.
While there could be an expectation that many of the defendants will simply plead out to a misdemeanor, Shapiro said that wouldn't happen.
"There's no defense attorney in the state that is going to say 'I'm going to let this go,'" he said.
And, if for whatever reason, a defendant loses in justice court, then they'll most certainly appeal the conviction to district court and that will "gum up the district court," he said.
"It's going to be a nightmare," Shapiro said. "It's going to be a lot of work."