Salt Lake City justice court judge charged with possessing, helping to distribute drugs
Virginia Ward is no stranger to drug crimes.
In her 11 years as a Salt Lake City justice court judge, Ward has tried countless cases against defendants facing misdemeanor drug charges.
But last week, the judge entered a courtroom to face drug charges of her own.
Ward was charged this month in 3rd District Court with two counts of drug possession with intent to distribute, second-degree felonies that each carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
The charges were filed July 5 more than three months after Ward was arrested on suspicion of drug possession in late March and she was arraigned last week.
Ward, 46, whose case will be heard by a judge from Tooele County to minimize conflict, was the subject of a federal investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration that began early this year.
According to a probable-cause statement, the DEA was investigating packages believed to contain Oxycodone, a highly addictive and oft-abused prescription drug.
For weeks, DEA agents staked out the UPS Store, 358 S. 700 East, where they knew Ward was receiving mail.
On five occasions, the documents state, agents witnessed Ward pick up parcels from the store. One time, agents said, she opened the box, pulled out a pill and swallowed it while sitting inside her car.
On March 30, the day she was arrested, Ward had received two packages containing 338 tablets of Oxycodone, the documents state.
She told agents that she had been taking the drug to treat her neck pain and also admitted that she had traded "controlled substances that she had received in order to obtain Oxycodone and other controlled substances," according to court documents.
Ward allegedly told investigators that the pills she had received March 30 belonged to someone else someone named Jose or Josh Anderson. She said she was planning to meet Jose and give him the packages, and in exchange, he would supply her with some of the Oxycodone, according to court documents.
Documents state that Ward admitted to knowing the pills were meant for illegal distribution to others, and said she had conducted a similar transaction with Jose once before.
Investigators suspect Ward has received about 170 packages from various senders around the country during the past seven months, including one that arrived six days after Ward was arrested.
Inside the box addressed to Ward, DEA agents found an additional 60 pills of Oxycodone, documents state.
Ward has not presided as a judge since she was arrested.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant said Ward would remain on administrative leave until the criminal investigation was complete.
If she is found guilty of committing crimes, she will also be subject to court sanctions after an investigation by the state Judicial Conduct Commission.
The commission has declined to comment on Ward's case, citing the ongoing investigation, but Colin Winchester, the commission's executive director, said the commission typically makes a recommendation to the Utah Supreme Court for disciplinary action ranging from a public reprimand to removal from the bench.
The Supreme Court ultimately decides what disciplinary action actions are taken against a judge.
According to a biography on the Utah State Courts website, Ward received a law degree from the University of Utah in 1993 and worked as a senior assistant prosecutor in Salt Lake County from 1994 to 2000. She has managed the Salt Lake City Justice Court's Focus Program, which handles repeat DUI offenders, according to the bio, and is the chair of the board of directors for the Utah Law-Related Education Project.