Effective Wednesday, plea deals will no longer be offered to defendants accused of gun-related crimes in Salt Lake County, District Attorney Sim Gill announced during an afternoon news conference.
“To those going forward who are going to engage in gun violence in the commission of a crime, you are put on notice,” Gill said. “Starting today, there will be no more plea bargains, and we will now throw the book at you.”
The new policy is something that the district attorney’s office, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Salt Lake City Police Department have been “talking about for a while,” Gill said Wednesday. He cited the recently released 2020 Crime in Utah Report, which showed an increase in homicides from 2019 to 2020. Two-thirds of those homicides involved firearms, which Gill said was the “most pressing” detail for officials.
Under the new policy, no criminal charge arising from the use of a gun or relating to the unlawful use or possession of a gun in the commission of a crime will be reduced as a part of any plea bargain.
“Absent a legal obstacle, a gun crime charge will either be resolved by a guilty plea as charged to the offense, or a trial will be commenced on that gun charge,” Gill said. “So very simple, going forward — if you’re going to commit crime in Salt Lake County with the possession of a gun, in a violent crime, you will be aggressively prosecuted.”
Requests for comment from the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah about the new policy were not returned Wednesday afternoon.
Previously, the district attorney’s office has used prosecutorial discretion to determine consequences for gun crimes. Gill said he recently met with division directors to inform them that gun crimes can no longer be pleaded down.
However, if “evidentiary issues, legal or ethical prohibitions” prevent a conviction, a “negotiated resolution” can be offered after approval from other officials, Gill said.
This year, Salt Lake City police officers have booked nearly 500 firearms into evidence, seizing illegal weapons from places including playgrounds and schools, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said. Nearly 130 restricted people have been arrested for possession of a firearm so far this year, Brown said.
Brown and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said they hope the new policy will send a message to prospective criminals and will help halt the “revolving door” of individuals who are repeat offenders.
Statistics from the Salt Lake County Criminal Justice advisory council however, provided by the district attorney’s office, show that a majority of homicide defendants from 2019-2021 did not have prior violent bookings. The majority of defendants in 2020 and 2021 also did not have prior felony bookings.
“That tells us that there’s a prevalence of guns,” Gill said, “and the prevalence of guns are ending up in the hands of people who are engaging in that criminal behavior.”
Last year, Gill’s office screened 87 homicides and attempted homicides. With two and a half months left in 2021, the office has screened 78 homicides and attempted homicides, he said.
Gill said data shows many such crimes were committed with stolen guns, after 2020 gun sales in Utah and nationwide broke records. Brown, Rivera and Gill on Wednesday urged lawful gun owners to keep their firearms securely stored.
Rivera mentioned a recent case where a gun owner reported an AR-style rifle stolen from a vehicle, which left the sheriff wondering why such a firearm was stored in their vehicle.
“Fighting gun violence takes people being brave enough to call us,” Brown said at the news conference. “It takes people saying ‘enough is enough,’ and not in our community. Gun violence can and does impact all of us.”