Cottonwood Heights has garnered a reputation for stomping a heavy foot down on suspected drunk drivers. While some have praised the city’s life-saving measures, others feel the police agency is using jackbooted force, simultaneously squashing civil liberties and local small businesses.
In the past, a cluster of city businesses had alleged harassment by local law enforcement. Jim Stojack owned the Canyon Inn for 25 years before selling it in October 2015, a move he says he was forced into in part because of police harassment. While some like Stojack have complained to city officials and the media, these allegations and other harassment claims can be difficult to prove. However, an analysis of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) convictions for Cottonwood Heights Police Department can at least show how well charges brought by the CHPD stick.
Public records provided to Utah Stories by the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts show a discrepancy between average DUI conviction rates for CHPD versus the Salt Lake City, Unified and West Valley City police departments, for both justice and district court cases. From 2010 to 2015, the CHPD had an approximate 77 percent DUI conviction rate, while the other three agencies’ respective rates were approximately 81 percent. In some years, the discrepancy was more pronounced.
The city of Cottonwood Heights declined to comment to Utah Stories regarding these records, but instead referred a reporter to the police department’s website. Having been the focus of repeated allegations of heavy-handed policing, the city has posted numerous records online to address police practice complaints. For example, maps from 2008 to 2015 pinpoint DUI arrest locations to show that they have not been clustered in any single area of the city.
The city also contends that its conviction rates have been in line with rates of other law enforcement agencies. According to the city’s own internal analysis however, some initially dismissed DUIs may have been done so in conjunction with plea deals related to sentencing for more serious crimes.
Still, for Kent Hart, Executive Director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, overall state DUI prosecutions and convictions are likely not very reflective of reality, and even 80 percent conviction rates are concerning when it means that 20 percent of people are likely being wrongly arrested.
“DUIs are really based on scientific evidence,” Hart says. “And we give [cops] these tools and send them out and say ‘OK, go out and play with these tools. You’re not scientists, but go catch bad guys!’” Unfortunately this technology also makes it difficult for a lot of criminal defense attorneys to fight DUI claims unless that’s their area of expertise.
“And a lot of criminal defense lawyers don’t have the resources to do that,” says Hart.