After 2 lawsuits, Colorado motorist gets report on Utah trooper
In a case that opened Utah Highway Patrol misconduct investigations to the public, UHP's commander found a trooper violated a motorist's Fourth Amendment rights during a 2010 traffic stop.
But Cpl. Shawn Alton was not found to have committed four other violations of state law or UHP procedure when he searched Jeffrey Lawrence three years ago on the side of Interstate 70, according to documents Lawrence sued to obtain.
Lawrence received a copy of the UHP internal affairs investigation into Alton earlier this month, as well as copies of investigators' recorded interview with Alton. The documents signal an end to what started as a benign case of a motorist running out of gas and wound through the criminal and civil courts in Utah.
UHP had already paid Lawrence $40,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit he filed in federal court. UHP will also have to pay Lawrence about $9,000 in attorney fees to settle the records case.
The case may also have hurt the ability of police forces across Utah to keep investigations into their own officers out of public view. Lawrence's lawsuit was believed to be the first to specifically challenge a Utah police force for using exemptions in the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act to keep results of such investigations secret.
"I got what I wanted," Lawrence, 56, said of the records in an interview Tuesday.
UHP Maj. Mike Rapich on Thursday said the highway patrol has started telling complainants the outcome of their complaint and what was found in UHP's internal investigation. Rapich said the change is a result of Lawrence's lawsuit and efforts by Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires to improve transparency. Squires became commissioner earlier this year. His responsibilities include oversight of UHP.
"The position of the department will be to be as aggressive as we can to make sure those documents that should be available will be made available," Rapich said.
The state's record laws may still prohibit complainants from seeing a few types of records, Rapich added.
Lawrence still maintains Alton lied on a search warrant and arrest report about his destination. Alton, 38, and a candidate for mayor of Orangeville in the Nov. 5 election, did not respond to a request for comment made through UHP. He continues to patrol Emery and Carbon counties for UHP.
On April 21, 2010, Lawrence, an Evergreen, Colo., resident who works for a government contractor, was on his way to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Then he was going to Death Valley, Calif., where he planned to ride the motorcycle he was towing in an enclosed trailer. His 2005 Chevy Suburban ran out of fuel near Green River, Utah.
While Lawrence was waiting for AAA to bring him fuel, Alton arrived. In a search warrant application he filed later, Alton claimed Lawrence first said he was going to Las Vegas for three or four days for a construction convention then changed his story to say he was going to the base and then Death Valley. Lawrence also said he didn't know where he was staying, Alton wrote, then said he was staying at the Excalibur in Las Vegas.
Lawrence on Tuesday said he never said anything about a convention. He also said he would not stay at the Excalibur or say he was; he subscribes to a rewards program with a hotel chain. Alton did not have his dashboard camera or microphone recording during the first few minutes of his encounter with Lawrence when the exchange occurred.
But when Alton called Emery County Attorney Brent Langston, Langston told Alton there was not enough probable cause for a search warrant to look for drugs in the car. Alton decided to ask a judge anyway.
The problems for Alton came when he completed the electronic search warrant application from a computer in a police car. An autofill function checked a box saying the county attorney approved of the search warrant.
Alton, another trooper and a sheriff's deputy found 1 to 2 grams of marijuana and the pain reliever hydrocodone. Lawrence had a Colorado prescription for the marijuana and the hydrocodone. The Emery County Attorney's Office still charged Lawrence with a felony count of drug possession and three misdemeanors.
The charges were dismissed after the problems were discovered with the search warrant. Lawrence filed his federal civil suit and complaints with UHP alleging the improper search and that Alton racially profiled him. Lawrence has light skin but said he is of Portuguese descent and identifies as Latino.
"He profiled me as a drug runner," Lawrence argued Tuesday.
In his interview with UHP investigators, Alton denied profiling Lawrence or lying on the search warrant or arrest report.
While he sustained the Fourth Amendment complaint, UHP Col. Daniel Fuhr cleared Alton of racial profiling, violating UHP's policy on recording traffic stops, incorrectly patting down Lawrence and an allegation that Alton drove too fast while transporting Lawrence to the Emery County jail.
Typically, police forces tell complainants what happened to their complaint, but even after the civil suit was settled, UHP would not tell Lawrence what it found in its investigation of Alton. Lawrence's attorney filed a request under the records law, but UHP and its parent agency, Utah Department of Public Safety, would only say Alton was not disciplined.
The Utah State Records Committee, which hears public record disputes, sided with UHP, in part because Alton was not disciplined. Lawrence appealed that ruling by filing a lawsuit in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City.
On Aug. 21, Judge L.A. Dever ordered UHP to give Lawrence the records.
"There is no merit to DPS's argument that the interests favoring secrecy are not substantially outweighed by the public policies and interest favoring public disclosure," Dever wrote.
Lawrence said he is pleased Utah's record laws worked as intended.
"Bottom line is, most people don't challenge a police officer, and that's what he was counting on," Lawrence said of his encounter with Alton.
In his recorded interview with UHP investigators, Alton said if he knew then what he knows now about how some civilians are allowed onto military bases, Lawrence's story would have made sense. But Alton also defended himself.
"Look what I found," Alton told investigators. "Would I need more [probable cause]? Yeah, for future. [sic] But I think the indicators [of drug possession] I found proved itself."
UHP has removed the autofill function from the electronic search warrant program.