SALT LAKE CITY — Fifteen-year-olds accused of killing on-duty law enforcement officers could be charged directly in adult court under a bill that was approved Tuesday by a 5-4 vote of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
HB190, sponsored by Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, would give prosecutors the option of filing charges against 15-year-olds directly in adult court in cases of murder or aggravated murder of on-duty police officers. State law currently allows direct filing of charges at age 16 for any offense that would be murder or aggravated murder if committed by an adult or certain other felonies.
The genesis of the bill, Winder said, was the death of West Valley police officer Cody Brotherson, who was struck by a vehicle, killing him on impact.
Three teenage boys, brothers ages 14 and 15, and a friend who was 15, were fleeing from police just after 3 a.m. on Nov. 6, 2016, in a car they had just stolen when they hit and killed Brotherson near the intersection of 4100 South and 2200 West.
Brotherson was attempting to lay down spike strips to stop the car his fellow officers were chasing. Witnesses said the teens' vehicle swerved toward the officer, striking him and likely killing him on impact.
Brotherson was targeted because he was a "boy in blue, not just because it's another person on the street. There should be a weightier penalty," Winder said.
Brotherson's mother, Jenny Brotherson, told the committee that the gangs in Utah are "acutely aware of the laws involving juveniles and actively recruit younger and younger members due to the fact they know they can quickly and easily move through our system, even when committing violent acts, including murder."
Her son became a police officer to contribute to the greater good and he believed in the criminal justice system, she said.
"The justice system, as it stands today in the state of Utah, failed Cody. His murderers will be out on the streets in just a few years, and I can tell you as sure as I am standing here today there will be another family that will become victims of these three gang members," Brotherson said.
The teens were charged in juvenile court and prosecutors did not seek to transfer the cases to the adult system. A judge sentenced the teens to remain in a secure youth facility for "as long as possible," which would be until they turn 21.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said the case is one in which the system "failed us" considering the "three gangbangers will be back on the street in five years."
Lawmakers "have a duty to protect those who protect us," he said.
Prosecutors spoke in favor of the bill, noting its application is narrow.
When a 15-year-old intentionally or knowingly ends the life of a police officer on duty, "the appropriate venue is district court," said William Carlson of the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
But Pam Vickery, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, notes Utah law has never allowed direct filing of charges in adult court against anyone younger than 16 and nationally, the trend has been to move away from direct filing statutes.
Prosecutors could have attempted to certify the juveniles as adults under existing law in a process in the juvenile court.
"If the tool is there to send the juvenile to the adult court, why not use it?" Vickery said.
The larger policy question behind HB190 is "who should be the gatekeeper?" she said.
But other members of the public, including Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, urged the committee to support the bill.
In Brotherson's case, "the sentence that was given did not fit the crime that occurred," Ross said.
Jenny Brotherson said she was surprised that the committee vote was so close but she understands that the public policy debate about how juvenile offenders should be handled in the criminal justice system is divisive.1 comment on this story
Brotherson said she attended the legislative hearing because "it needs to be Cody's legacy in the sense of our officers are not protected, especially given the escalating gang violence. I don't think everybody really realizes how bad it's getting.
"Secondly, I don't want another family to have to sit through a place where you know these people took your child's life, but they're only going to serve a couple years. They are violent people and they are going to be on the street again and that's scary to me."