Lawyers for police officers call allegations ‘baseless’
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Feb 16, 2017 | 5456 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print

At least a dozen cases in 2016 have been dismissed or not filed due to allegedly compromised Moab City Police officers, according to the Grand County Attorney’s Office. After the online publication of several private documents Feb. 1 by the Salt Lake City-based City Weekly, Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald is now speaking publically about those dismissals, which were the result, he says, of concerns that certain officers could not be trusted to testify truthfully as witnesses in court.

Attorneys for the officers in question dispute Fitzgerald’s statements and the information contained in the documents and say they are treating these allegations as part of a “witch hunt” that they vow to investigate.

City officials say they have been taking Fitzgerald’s allegations seriously, but are not making any “judgment calls” about the officers in question. Rather, they say they hope the results of several ongoing investigations will shed more light on these issues.

“Regarding ... the allegation from the County Attorney’s office, the matter is being taken seriously and is being looked into as part of the [Internal Affairs] investigations that are taking place now,” said Interim Moab Police Chief Steve Ross.

The Moab City Police Department has dealt with a multitude of investigations over the past year. In addition to five internal affairs (IA) investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reviewed the police department last spring, and Utah’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) is currently conducting an active investigation involving Moab city.

Last fall, Fitzgerald removed police powers from four members of the department — former officers Joshua Althoff and Justin Olsen, as well as officers Steven Risenhoover and Shaun Hansen. Risenhoover and Hansen are currently on paid administrative leave and are the subjects of two open IA investigations.

“I think that there are many people in our community, some even in the last couple days that have come forward saying that it’s about time someone is doing something about this stuff because this happened to me, and this happened to me, and this happened to me,” Fitzgerald told The Times-Independent.

Chad Woolley, Moab city prosecutor, also confirmed that he has dismissed several cases due to “issues with the officers and their conduct.”

“I think the county attorney took some proactive steps early on that brought some of this stuff to a head sooner than it would have otherwise,” Woolley said. “ ... Had we learned it before him, we may have taken the steps that he has. We should police ourselves; we should take care of those issues. He obviously felt the need to do what he did.”

But attorneys for the officers, including Risenhoover’s lawyer Bret Rawson, say the allegations against their clients are “baseless” and “spun up.” Rawson argued that some officers are being targeted unfairly for reasons he intends to investigate.

“We are interested in the relationship between higher-ranking officials and ex-officials and we intend to get to the bottom of why Steve Risenhoover, and perhaps others, are being ‘scapegoated’ in the city of Moab, and how and why someone would violate the law to make private matters public, so prematurely,” Rawson said.

Outside evaluation of police law and policy

According to the Grand County Attorney’s Office, at least 13 cases were dismissed in 2016 due to allegedly compromised police officers. Most of those cases involved possession of controlled substances and drug paraphernalia, but some involved court protective orders and one involved sexual battery.

A “litany” of other cases, including more serious cases, Fitzgerald says, were screened and then dismissed by his office, meaning that those cases were never filed in court due to concerns that officers involved were compromised.

When speaking about the dismissals, Fitzgerald often references case law known as “Brady, Giglio, and Bagley” — collectively referring to the constitutional obligation of prosecutors to produce exculpatory information to the defense that might negate the criminal responsibility of the defendant.

Both the city prosecutor and the county attorney’s office are legally bound to keep “Brady files,” tracking, as Fitzgerald says, “what they can” regarding potentially problematic behavior by law enforcement officers.

Fitzgerald says police departments are also required under “Brady” to provide such information to the county attorney, but currently no policy and procedure exists at Moab city “to even facilitate that.”

Officials with the Moab Police Department told The Times-Independent that the department’s policy and procedures manual “does not specifically address ‘Brady, Giglio and/or Bagley case law,’” an omission that Fitzgerald says underscores his concerns.

“Not having [a Brady policy] compromises the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Fitzgerald said. “If they’re not giving [the prosecutors] information on officers that have been disciplined, those issues could negate the guilt of the accused. Some innocent person may be deprived of their liberty in life.”

Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt calls Fitzgerald’s suggestion regarding a compromised criminal justice system “a bit of a strong statement.” He says the city has acted “expeditiously” to investigate Fitzgerald’s concerns with the police department by placing the officers in question on administrative leave and initiating the IA investigations.

“ ... I do think the community can be confident that the Moab Police Department is on a really positive trajectory,” Everitt said. “It’ll definitely take time to earn back some trust, no question. But I think that is a clear goal of every member of the department and to the rest of us in the city administration.”

Everitt said an outside expert is currently evaluating the police department’s policies and procedures. In addition to looking at creating a “civilian review board” for the agency, that expert will likely recommend a “more formal” policy on Brady, Giglio, and Bagley soon, Everitt said.

Questions under oath

Beginning in April 2016, former officers Althoff and Olsen were subjects of an IA investigation into allegations that they provided alcohol to minors at a party in 2015.

Although the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the investigation, found “no substantial” evidence to support the allegations, both officers say they felt forced to resign from the police department in August 2016.

“A week before our pre-termination hearing, knowing that we were fighting the [IA] allegations, the city prosecutor made a determination regarding credibility of the officers and dismissed all of the cases involving Mr. Olsen even though the IA file cleared [him] of all violations related to untruthfulness or mishandling of evidence by him,” said Olsen’s lawyer, Christina Sloan, who described the prosecutor’s actions as “inappropriate.”

But Woolley said the timing of his decision had nothing to do with the IA investigation, adding that when “[we] find out about stuff we’ve got to move.”

Fitzgerald even expressed disinterest in the outcome of the IA investigations involving Althoff and Olsen, suggesting that its focus on a July 2015 party did not address much larger issues.

“I hadn’t seen [the IAs on Althoff and Olsen] until the [City Weekly] article came out. I’m not even in possession of those. The city never gave them to me,” Fitzgerald said. “ ... [But] I’m not terribly interested in those IAs because I felt that they were selected or done to brush things under the carpet.”

More concerning, he told The Times-Independent, was an April 5, 2016 suppression hearing involving Althoff, Olsen and Risenhoover, where “it appeared that what was said in open court under record was likely not the truth.”

“That was the tipping point,” he added.

Fitzgerald dismissed cases investigated by Olsen and Althoff on Aug. 25, telling then-Moab Police Chief Mike Navarre and then-City Manager Rebecca Davidson in a letter that the “veracity of [their] testimony could not be relied upon under oath ..." And later, in a Sept. 22 letter to Interim Police Chief Ross, Fitzgerald removed Risenhoover and Hansen’s ability to control any evidence or serve as witnesses under oath.

In that letter detailing some aspects of his concerns, Fitzgerald alleged that Risenhoover intended to bury a court document, committed an illegal search and seizure, and made threats against defense counsel Happy Morgan. He also alludes to a “multitude” of complaints against Hansen, including that the Moab Area Narcotics Enforcement Team stopped operating because cooperating law enforcement agencies did not trust the officer.

Sloan says the concerns and facts described by Fitzgerald in his letters are not substantive enough to “discredit” and “destroy” the careers of some officers.

But Everitt said Moab city is making no judgments regarding those allegations at this time, adding that several investigations — including the IAs involving Risenhoover and Hansen — are still open.

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