Sure Brett Tolman may look like a still-wet-behind-the-ears law school grad from Brigham Young University, but don't let appearances fool you. At the age of 36, with even younger looks, Tolman has already cut his teeth as an assistant U.S. attorney, taking a bite out of illegal gun possession in Utah and serving two of the most influential senators in Washington, D.C.
On Friday, the Senate confirmed him by voice vote as the new U.S. attorney for Utah, replacing Paul Warner as the top federal law-enforcement officer in the state. Warner stepped down earlier this year to become a federal magistrate judge.
Although he is not the youngest serving U.S. attorney, which is recorded at 25, "I'm on the younger side, certainly," Tolman told the Deseret Morning News.
He says he is glad to be back in Utah near his family and to have a chance to raise his kids here. In between his visit to the office he will now run and an overgrown lawn that needs mowing at a house he owns, Tolman took the time to speak the the Deseret Morning News about his past and how it will influence his role as a top federal prosecutor.
Tolman said being an effective prosecutor is more than just having a heavy hand it takes balance.
"I am a fair prosecutor. I will be hard and tough when necessary, but a good prosecutor needs to know when to extend a hand of mercy, knowing that individuals can make mistakes," he said.
Growing up in Utah County, Tolman said, it was his father who first inspired him to go into law enforcement. Lynn Tolman had worked as a peace officer in Los Angeles and had witnessed the Watts riots in 1965, which lasted six days. The Watts area was 99 percent African-American, and one out of eight adults lacked a high school education. The riot was sparked by three arrests stemming from a traffic stop, but it was fueled by a long history of police brutality in the neighborhood.
Lynn Tolman had also gone undercover among the infamous Hell's Angels bike gang. "I remember sitting down and listening to some of his stories," Tolman said.
At a young age, Tolman struggled with dyslexia, and it was one of his father's law books that not only helped him overcome this challenge but opened the way for his law career.
"I remember when I was young, we had this law book, and I remember my dad saying, 'If you can read this, you can read anything,' " Tolman said.
When he was 14, the concept of justice took on a hard reality: His older sister was kidnapped and raped while in college. "We were never able to find the car. They were never brought to justice," he said.
As the new U.S. attorney for Utah, Tolman said violent crimes, especially ones against children, are the kind of cases he is passionate about. In particular, Tolman said he finds cases against Internet child predators particularly rewarding.
After he graduated from BYU's law school, Tolman clerked for U.S. District Judge Dee Benson for more than two years. He then interviewed with Paul Warner and worked four years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City. While there, Tolman scored high marks for working with local law enforcement in Project Safe Neighborhood, which focused on catching convicted felons who possessed guns.
In 2003, his work caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who at the time was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Later Sen. Arlen Specter, R- Penn., who took over as judiciary chairman, brought Tolman aboard. For several years, Tolman helped the two senators gain support for the renewal of the Patriot Act, legislation that drew criticism from lawmakers and citizens alike for concerns about the constitutional rights of Americans.
"The Patriot Act is one of the most misunderstood laws on the books," Tolman said, adding he recognized a need for checks and balances regarding citizen rights. However, Tolman said he felt the law was vilified by some. "The Patriot Act became the embodiment of the fear of the unknown."
Tolman is not leaving controversial subjects behind. He takes his new position at a time when illegal immigration is becoming a hot topic.
Tolman said he plans to continue the tradition of prosecuting "aggravated re-entry" cases with a focus on human trafficking that he believes endangers lives. Like his predecessor, Tolman said he is open to meeting with representatives of the Hispanic community to hear their concerns and work with them to help curb violent crime in their communities. "They have a very important place here in Utah," he said.
He will also inherit one of the most intriguing cases in his office: the disappearance of Kiplyn Davis. Tolman said he plans to continue to pursue the cases against several men in connection with what authorities now believe is the rape and murder of the 15-year-old.
As a member of the LDS faith, Tolman said he is in tune with Utah's LDS community and its concerns, but having non-LDS family members allows him to "appreciate the diversity of religion."
Although his father passed away two years ago due to cancer, Tolman said it is his father's sense of humor that has really stayed with him. It has allowed him to disarm both Republican and Democrat lawmakers alike and to reach compromises in Washington. He hopes to carry that same outlook in his new role: "aggressive but fair, methodical and wise," he said.
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