One of the many charged debates on Internet message boards in response to the controversial Taser incident in Uintah County is whether a driver being issued a citation is required to actually sign the ticket. And if the driver doesn't, what, if anything, happens next.
Is refusal a separate criminal penalty? Grounds for arrest? A citizen's right?
The debate rages after a dashboard camera from a highway patrol trooper's car was posted on YouTube, detailing an exchange that played out between officer John Gardner and a motorist he had stopped, Jared Massey.
In the video, Massey refuses to sign a speeding ticket in a Sept. 14 traffic stop, is asked to step out of his SUV and, after refusing to obey the officer's verbal commands, is Tasered.
Video viewers are lining up on both sides of the debate, defending on one hand an officer who was dealing with a belligerent, noncompliant motorist and on the other criticizing a Taser-happy trooper who was quick to reach for his Taser first and try to verbally de-escalate the situation later.
UHP spokesman Cameron Roden said if a driver refuses to sign a speeding ticket, the officer who pulled that person over has several options.
"If you sign a citation, it's not admitting guilt by any means. It just says you'll promise to appear in court," he said. "If someone refuses to sign the citation, they're refusing to appear in court."
At that point, the arresting officer has the option of taking the driver into custody and to a hearing before the local magistrate, Roden said.
Salt Lake civil rights attorney Brian Barnard agreed police do have the right to arrest a driver who does not sign a speeding ticket.
Refusing to sign a ticket is not a crime under Utah state law. Signing a citation but then failing to show up in court, however, is a class B misdemeanor.
Another option if a driver refuses to sign a ticket is for the officer to "put it in the car in a professional manner and leave it at that," Roden said.
The action an officer takes against drivers refusing to sign speeding tickets is different in every department. In Salt Lake County and some of the state's bigger cities, taking a person into custody for refusing to sign a ticket may not be an option because of jail overcrowding issues, Roden said. Most departments also leave it to the discretion of the arresting officer to evaluate all the circumstances of any given situation.
Unless there is legal action involved, Roden said all Taser deployments by UHP troopers are reviewed internally and not by an outside agency.
From what Barnard has seen on the YouTube video, he does not believe the driver should have been Tasered.
"There is no legal nor factual justification for what the trooper did," he said. "Asking a cop questions and being upset that you have been stopped for speeding is not justification for the use of such force."
Barnard did not believe the driver was "out of control." Furthermore, the trooper still had control of the situation before pulling out his Taser, Barnard said.
"The flippant comments confirm the trooper's malice and clear intention to harm the speeder rather than to control a situation," he said. "A person who abuses his power, acts so unprofessional and then jokes about it, should not be in law enforcement."
Barnard further criticized what he called the trooper's use of excessive force by saying, "It appears that the Taser was a new 'toy' that the trooper could not wait to use on someone."
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Roden said an investigation into the trooper's conduct is being expedited. Officials hope to have it completed by early next week, he said.
The trooper involved in the incident is a 14-year veteran, Roden said, who remains on duty.
The UHP has a policy for when Tasers can be deployed. Those situations include if a person is threatening himself or others, if other means of control have proved insufficient and if the use of more force would endanger more people.
Massey is fighting the speeding citation and has a trial set for Jan. 12 in Uintah County Justice Court.
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