Judge dismisses charges against Springdale officials in tourist ticketing case
St. George • The Springdale Police Department's habit of stopping foreign tourists for traffic violations and collecting the drivers' fines without a court's involvement was clearly a bad policy, according to the judge weighing the charges against two town officials who oversaw the policy and its funds, but it wasn't enough to constitute a crime.
Springdale Police Chief Kurt Wright and City Manager Richard "Rick" Wixom walked out of the 5th District Court on Wednesday afternoon absolved of third-degree felony charges against them, and a contingent of Springdale supporters who filled up the courtroom breathed a sigh of relief along with them.
"Thank God it's over," Wright said after the daylong preliminary hearing. "[It feels] like 1,000 pounds lifted off of my shoulders."
The Utah attorney general's office in February charged Wright and Wixom with one third-degree felony count each of failure to keep public money, saying the town officials did not properly file the citations written to foreign tourists with Hurricane Justice Court, as is required by state law. The court is required to take in a town's fines, keeping 25 percent and giving back the rest to the town.
There was evidence that Wixom and Wright knew about the way the fines were handled. There also was evidence that Wright explicitly trained his officers to follow that policy, and there was evidence that Wixom knew the money collected by the officers was going straight to the city and bypassed the court's fees entirely. But there was no evidence, the judge decided, that they knew whether any of what they were doing was illegal.
Defense attorneys Doug Terry and Clifford Dunn, who represent Wright and Wixom, respectively, on Wednesday argued no one had warned Springdale the process was illegal and that the officials made no attempts to hide it. They also pointed out Springdale repaid money due to the Hurricane Justice Court after a 2012 state audit found problems.
"It was a mistake in accounting," Dunn said. "There was no reckless neglect. â¦ What we have here is a case of the state overreaching."
The 2012 audit found that Springdale failed to document more than 1,000 cases and at least $33,000 in fines between 2009 and October 2011. The town eventually paid back the fees owed to the court and the state when the practice was stopped at the insistence of Hurricane Justice Court.
The prosecution argued that Wixom and Wright should have known the proper procedure, especially since not all fines were collected in the same way. People cited in Springdale who were United States citizens didn't pay their fines on the spot, and their citations were handled by the court, witnesses testified Wednesday.
Witnesses also said that Wixom kept track of the fines coming in through the police. Springdale Treasurer Dawn Wallace said she would take cash collected from officers and put it straight into the city coffers. Wixom would also track officers' tickets and compare them against each other, especially one particular officer who was known for writing a lot of them.
The state's argument proved unsuccessful however, and Judge Wallace Lee sided with the defense argument that Wixom, Wright and everyone who worked under them were just following the town's policy.
While he said the policy itself didn't "pass the smell test," Lee said he couldn't find evidence of anything more than a mistake.
"I'm not sure the buck stops with him," Lee said of Wixom. "It seems like everyone made a mistake in this case."
Lee also said he didn't think Wright knew the policy was against the law. If not found to be illegal, however, the ticketing process was executed very aggressively, according to some testimony.
If foreign tourists didn't have the cash to pay their fines on the spot, Springdale police would follow them to an ATM, former Springdale Officer Michelle Johnson testified Wednesday.
Johnson, who used to work for the Davis County Sheriff's Office and was a part-time officer in Springdale from 2003 to 2008, said she had never heard of collecting on-the-spot fines until working in Springdale. She testified following the tourists to the ATM was part of the training she received.
"It was really uncomfortable," Johnson said of the entire practice. "I felt it was giving the area a bad reputation."
But other Springdale employees testified Wixom and Wright were forthright about the policy and the intent was only to collect fines from tourists who were presumably about to leave the country; not circumvent the law.
Springdale police Sgt. Garen Brecke acknowledged that he collected fines from foreigners, but said the tourists still had the option of paying by mail or contesting their tickets in court like anyone else. He said he only collected money from foreign tourists if they chose to pay, but that U.S. citizens weren't presented with the option of paying on the spot.
"That's how I was trained," Brecke said. "I never coerced anybody."