PROVO — Since last spring, the Utah County Commission has weighed whether to establish a board to review allegations of misconduct by prosecutors, initially with the intent to create it by the end of 2017.
But this week, amid concerns from prosecutors and other law enforcement, the commissioners voted to put the creation of such board on hold, with no date yet set to consider it.
The commission on Tuesday voted to table the creation of the review board to allow more discussion with judges and others in law enforcement, Commissioner Bill Lee said.
"I would hope as we continue to go through this process … we continue to have dialogue so what comes out at the end is fantastic for us to work with," Lee said Tuesday, the day when numerous law enforcement and prosecution officials urged the commission to not support the proposal.
The commission first began considering some type of prosecutorial review board after a group of concerned Utah County residents asked commissioners to create an independent body to investigate allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
The group included five residents who had found themselves at the center of criminal prosecutions within the last decade whose cases ended in acquittal or were dismissed — but not without damage to their livelihoods and reputations.
The proposed review board would include a seven-member body that would review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, allegations of wrongful prosecutions or civil rights violations within Utah County.
But attorneys and police officers have pushed back against the proposal, concerned that a review board might create a chilling effect for law enforcement officials who may not want to risk taking on challenging cases.
Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman called the proposed board a "direct attack" on prosecutors and perhaps even police departments that investigate and prepare cases.
Buhman also said he believes the board would be "unconstitutional" and would upset the balance of the current system, while also creating "mistrust" between the Utah County Attorney's Office and the county's citizens "when none such mistrust exists except with a very small minority — and I'll admit, a very vocal minority."
"I think we should call it what it is — a proposal or a push by a group of anti-government, anti-law enforcement, anti-prosecution, anti-public safety people who want to control or influence the decisions of public elected prosecutors," Buhman said.
The county attorney also noted that to his knowledge, the county has never had a case overturned for misconduct.
"Where is this misconduct? It doesn't exist," he said. "Mistakes? Sure. Misconduct? No."
Utah County Sheriff James Tracy urged commissioners to "stay away from this slippery slope," noting that it could have "unintended consequences" for both law enforcement and victims of crimes and how it might upset the current judiciary process.
"Where does it end?" Tracy asked. "How does it consume public time, public resources and what chilling effect might it have?"
"I believe you will handcuff the Utah County Attorney's Office if this committee goes forward," said Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Harris. He noted that the system already has a balance of powers, with prosecutors answering to the Utah State Bar, district courts, juries, appeals processes, and even voters. "I'm asking you, please don't reinvent the wheel."
But proponent Steve Turley, a former Provo Councilman who prosecutors charged with 10 fraud felonies in 2011, urged commissioners to support "any kind of improvement," saying he has suffered because he was falsely accused.
Turley's charges were dismissed for lack of probable cause or because the statute of limitations had run out. Last year Turley filed a lawsuit against the county alleging malicious prosecution. He said the case against him has "wrecked my life."
"It took away my reputation that no money can give back to me," he said, firing back at Buhman's comment. "To be called anti-government or anti-prosecution, that's not me. I was simply falsely accused."1 comment on this story
All three commissioners initially supported considering the creation of a review board, but Tuesday, Commissioner Greg Graves pulled back his support of the current proposal and said he would only support some type of review process if Buhman also supported it.
"First off, I'm ashamed," Graves said of his past support of the proposal. "We should be about protecting and honoring (prosecutors and law enforcement). Do we have imperfect people? Yes. And do those people get dealt with? Yes."