It all began with a loose dog, a cell phone and a jail sentence. Twenty months and dozens of legal proceedings later, the battle still rages: Judge Keith Stoney v. the Peltekian family.
The Peltekian case has been a flash point in a grass-roots uprising against Stoney and prosecutor Lindsay Jarvis, who recently resigned. There has been a lot of he-said-she-said in the ensuing war of words, but one thing seems clear: Something is wrong with Stoney's courtroom, if not the entire justice-court system. All of which is why the Peltekians were invited to testify in front of the state Legislature earlier this year.
In the summer of 2009, Ed and Elaine Peltekians left their son Ryan's dog in the care of Ed's sister, Ann Bieker, while they went on vacation. While they were gone, their dog got loose and was picked up by the city. No problem, all they had to do was pay a fine, right? Wrong. Ann, Ed and Ryan were forced to appear in Stoney's court, where they say they were abused and threatened for not pleading guilty to three misdemeanors that would have meant thousands of dollars in fines, a criminal record and probation.
"We were willing to pay a fee to get the dog out," says Ed. "But we were not willing to become criminals. We were treated as if we robbed a store. Stoney threatened me with jail many times. I held my ground and he didn't like that."
After several confrontational court appearances, Elaine decided to record the proceedings against her son on her cell phone. "There is no recorder in the court," she says, "so they can do whatever they want. We had no proof of what was happening. There were no signs that said I couldn't do it."
When an officer of the court told Elaine that recording was banned, she says she stopped. Moments later, she powered off the phone and put it away. Then Stoney announced that he had been informed that someone was recording in his courtroom, and Elaine was taken to a back room.
"It looks like someone is going to jail," she says she heard Stoney say as she was taken away. She was forced to wait the rest of the day until the court was empty before she returned to appear before Stoney for contempt of court. She apologized and explained that she didn't know it was against the rules. She was accused of recording a second time after she had been asked not to, even though an examination of her phone later revealed she had made only one recording.
"They say I pleaded guilty; I didn't," says Elaine. "They just took me away. I wasn't given a hearing."
Elaine was handcuffed and driven to a jail in Springville, where she was booked, dressed in orange pants and a striped shirt and roomed with other inmates for 24 hours.
"I was numb," she says. "I had never been in jail. I haven't even had a speeding ticket in 15 years. My stepfather is a retired detective. My mom worked in law enforcement. I did volunteer work for law enforcement. Until it happens to you it's hard to believe the abuse that goes in (Stoney's) court."
Bieker was sentenced to a six months probation, and Ryan's case was overturned in district court, with the judge writing that Ryan's constitutional rights were violated. Ed's case was dismissed, as well.
Elaine says she will file a complaint against Stoney with the Judicial Conduct Commission. A district judge ruled that she never should have been a criminal defendant, noting that she was never charged or convicted of a crime.
And yet the case drags on. The city is appealing the district court rulings.
"To think this all started over a dog that got out of its yard," says state Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork.
Stoney has been silent and Jarvis defiant in various media reports about Stoney's courtroom controversies, but given the widespread complaints it seems obvious that something is amiss. There are blogs and websites devoted to Stoney's removal — Votenoonstoney.com. There have been protests and rallies against Stoney in Saratoga Springs. Last month some 30 residents appeared at a City Council meeting to air their grievances against Stoney and Jarvis. It turns out there are many people with stories like the Peltekians' in this small town of 26,000.
"This is much bigger than what happened to my family," says Ed.
Which is why the Peltekian's case has caught the attention of state legislators. Says one legislator, "I am getting so many emails about Stoney, I can't keep up with it." For that matter, he gets complaints from around the state about what he calls "justice court nightmares."
Says Sumsion: "It's a big enough issue that more legislation is coming. I can tell you that." State Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, agrees, calling justice courts "cash cows" for small town with little oversight.
"They can do what they want," he says. "There is no recourse in these courts, no record. You're a stranger in the court; everyone knows each other. It's them versus you. They can get you for anything they feel like."
The Peltekian case prompted the Legislature to propose two laws — one that would require all justice courts to have recorders in their courtrooms and another that would enable local citizens the ability to vote judges out of office. The majority of Saratoga Springs residents rejected Stoney in the election, but their votes were diluted by the rest of the county.21 comments on this story
If nothing else, common sense failed in the Peltekian case. "Couldn't he have just taken the phone?" says Christensen. "Did she really need to go to jail? Contempt of court is knowingly violating specific instructions."
Meanwhile, life goes on for Elaine. She works in a hair salon and Ed in construction. Her criminal record complicated efforts to rent a home. Ironically, Ed, Elaine and their two kids moved to Utah four years ago to get away from crime and the rat race in California.
"We wanted a better life for our children and family," says Elaine. "We move to a nice small town and all this happens."