HIGHLAND — Police have arrested a 4th District judge on suspicion of drug possession.

Judge Ray M. Harding Jr. was arrested Saturday at his home in the Bull River development in Highland after police say they found the judge in possession of what appears to be drugs.

Alpine/Highland Police Chief Kip Botkin said there was no ongoing investigation into Harding before Saturday. Rather, it appears the case may be one of the judge's being caught off guard.

"This started out as a call to us for a citizen's assist," said Botkin, who refused to disclose the nature of the call. Botkin did say that it was a member of Harding's family who called police around 7:30 a.m.

When police arrived, Botkin said, the officer's attention was turned to something in the judge's possession that appeared to be a controlled substance. Botkin said the substance was taken into evidence and sent for testing. He would not say what they believe the substance is until the test results come back. "It was not prescription drugs," Botkin said.

When asked what made them believe the substance was Harding's and not a family member's, Botkin said, "We feel that we are on very strong legal grounds in this incident."

The incident has caught many attorneys in Utah County off guard. Particularly Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson, who finds himself with a judge — with whom he has a daily working relationship — accused of a serious crime within his county.

"I'm always disappointed when these kind of things are brought to my attention, but we're going to wait and see what the police come up with," Bryson said.

Bryson said that in his career as prosecutor, he has dealt with police officers and other high-profile professionals who were accused of drug possession. "This is the first time that I have dealt with any judge and allegations of criminal misconduct."

Upon Harding's arrest, Bryson said he requested that Harding be booked into the Tooele County Jail in an effort to not only protect against conflict of interest but also in consideration of the judge's well-being.

"I spoke with the (Utah) County sheriff and we felt that it would not be a good idea to hold him with people that he had sent to jail," Bryson said.

Come Monday, he said, he will also ask the Utah Attorney General's Office to take over the prosecution. The Utah County Major Crimes Task Force will be placed in charge of the criminal investigation.

A 3rd District judge, possibly the one who signed the search warrant Saturday to allow police to search Harding's home, may preside over Harding's bail hearing Monday morning.

Bryson said he also is interested in Harding's behavior last Friday during court.

During a motion hearing on a child sex-abuse case, both prosecution and defense attorneys expressed concern over Harding's health. The judge appeared pale, lethargic and had a raspy voice. Both Deputy Utah County Attorney Sherry Ragan and defense attorney Mike Esplin asked the judge Friday if he felt well enough to continue through the hearing.

Harding asked to go off the record and explained that he was not feeling well but added that he felt it was his professional obligation to fulfill his duties as a judge.

Harding was appointed to the bench by Gov. Mike Leavitt in September 1995. Harding's father served more than 15 years as a district judge in Utah County.

Ironically, it was Harding Jr.'s father who advocated for and was the first judge to preside over Utah County's first drug court. "The person who was really active in getting a drug court started was Judge Harding Sr.," Bryson said.

With an eye toward the future, Bryson also is concerned Harding Jr.'s arrest Saturday could create problems with the workings of the 4th District. Most importantly, he said, are Harding's past rulings on criminal cases, particularly those involving drugs.

Bryson said discussions have already begun in anticipation of a possible frenzy of appeals by criminal defense attorneys, asking to reverse past decisions or drop charges.

Meantime, Bryson and police were being very careful to handle the case in text-book-style fashion. "It's not every day that a state judicial court judge gets arrested," Botkin said.

E-mail: [email protected]