Utah senator wants to change the gang enhancement law used against protesters

A Utah senator says he’ll work to change the state’s gang enhancement laws after Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill used it to heighten the potential penalty for a group of protesters who allegedly damaged the district attorney’s building in July.

Gill’s office received international attention after charging eight protesters with felonies for allegedly painting the street and facade of his office building red and breaking some windows during a July 9 protest. Seven of them are facing first-degree felony charges with gang enhancements that carry a potential sentence of up to life in prison.

“Clearly this is not how the statute was intended to be used,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

Thatcher said he doesn’t want to altogether get rid of the law that allows prosecutors to seek heightened penalties if people commit crimes as part of a gang, but said he wants it revised so it targets only those involved in organized crime. Utah law currently says criminal penalties can be enhanced if prosecutors can show someone committed a crime as part of a criminal gang or “in concert with two or more persons.”

“There is a benefit to the public when we look at the risk and the threat posed by an offender,” he said. “Some offenses are simply more dangerous and deserve a longer sentence. But the statute is intended to stop organized crime and criminal enterprises, not to punish people who have offended you.”

The protest was about Gill’s decision not to file charges against two Salt Lake City police officers who shot and killed Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as he ran from them. Gill said the officers’ reasonably feared for their safety, in part because Palacios-Carbajal had a gun. His decision led to a tense protest and confrontations with police.

Gill has also taken heat in recent days over his decision to file the charges against protesters before handing off the case to an outside prosecutor.

His office announced Thursday that retired juvenile court judge Dane Nolan will take over the prosecutions.

Nolan’s contract shows he will be paid $150 an hour for his work — but places a soft cap of $25,000, with the possibility of more funds for Nolan if needed.

That equates to a cap of just over 166 hours of work or about five weeks of a full-time job.

The contract also allows Nolan to incur costs not more than $2,500. And though the former judge will get access to “county support staff,” the contract notes that Nolan will have “full autonomy to take all prosecution actions and to make prosecution decisions.”

Asking a retired judge to take on a case is unusual. It’s more typical for an agency to request a county attorney in a nearby jurisdiction to handle the case, or ask the attorney general’s office to prosecute.

But Gill said it was “politely communicated” to his office last year that those sister jurisdictions preferred that Salt Lake make other arrangements because the cases they got were often complicated — though he didn’t say which counties asked him to stop bringing cases.

Nolan said when the district attorney’s office approached him with the idea of acting as the prosecutor, he looked over the proposal and agreed to step in.

Tribune reporters Robert Gehrke and Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.