There’s pushback on Utah’s Capitol hill against tough-on-crime bills Democrats have sponsored this year. Utah Senator Karen Mayne is sponsoring two of those bills. She has a soft spot for first responders.
“This is a sensitive issue, especially for those that live on the west side of Salt Lake County. We lost one of our brothers,” Mayne says.
West Valley City Police Officer Cody Brotherson was laying down road spikes when he was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by a teenager who refused to stop at officer commands.
“That’s still a heartache for the state and especially our community,” she says.
Mayne co-sponsored S.B. 84, which makes it easier to charge someone with murder for failing to stop at a police officer’s command.
And with S.B. 30, she’s proposed giving prosecutors the option to sentence someone to death for killing first responders like security guards and ambulance drivers. It compliments a new law that makes killing a police officer punishable by death.
“They don’t have to use that tool,” she says. “But if it rises to that from the evidence than it’s in statute [and] they can use it.”
Senate Bill 30 is largely politically neutral. Detractors on both sides of the aisle share the same concerns.
First, there’s a call to end the death penalty in the state. Republican Representative Gage Froerer is sponsoring a bill to repeal it this year.
And there’s another problem. Utah has a long list of aggravating factors — reasons why someone could be sentenced to death.
William Carlson, with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, says adding more aggravating factors could jeopardize Utah’s death penalty altogether.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has not drawn a bright line that says as long as you have fewer than this many you’re okay. And if you have more than that it’s too many,” Carlson says. “But Utah currently has over 60 aggravating factors. And so if Utah appellate courts take a similar route to other state appellate courts that is a risk .”
Attorneys in Arizona are asking the Supreme Court to review their death penalty scheme right now for the same reason.
A 2009 study out of the University of Colorado found that 88 percent of the nation’s leading criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. The primary argument is that criminals in the act of a violent crime probably aren’t considering the severity of the penalty they’ll face.
Mayne says her bills aren’t about deterring crime, but rather sending a message to law enforcement that they are valued.
“I think when someone is out to do harm their judgment isn’t in the right place. But we can’t be the judge of that,” Mayne says. “All we can be the judge of is the consequence of that.”
Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, who represents the police chief’s association supports the first responders bill.
“I think the message that comes from these types of bills primarily is letting our officers know that we care about them and we respect them,” he says. And most importantly that an intentional attack on law enforcement is really an attack on society in general.”
Chief Ross also supports another crime bill sponsored by a Democrat. S.B. 57 enhances the penalty for killing a police service dog from a 3rd-degree felony to a 2nd-degree felony. The sponsor, Senator Jani Iwamoto says she was moved by the deaths of Unified Police K9’s Aldo and Dingo. Both police dogs were recently killed in the line of duty. Iwamoto argues a K9 costs taxpayers upward of $60,000 and they save police officer’s lives, so the crime deserves a tougher sentence.
Republican Senator Todd Weiler doesn’t believe that it costs that much to train a police dog. And he’s not comfortable equating the death of a dog to the death of a human being.
“Many intentional deaths of human beings are plead down to 2nd-degree felonies,” he says. “And many deaths of human beings, if someone is driving a car it’s hard to tell if they intentionally hit somebody or not. And those are 3rd-degree felonies.”
The Utah Sentencing Commission, which advises the legislature, also does not support the K9 victims bill.
Democratic Representative Brian King, the House minority leader, says these bills aren’t really about getting “tough on crime.”
“It’s more a desire on the part of Democrats to respond to deeply felt empathy for the families of first responders who are killed,” he says. “Or in the situation where we’re talking about the police dogs, I’ve been interested to see how deep for many, many people in this state this desire to protect our animals, especially our service animals.”
King opposes the death penalty. So he won’t be voting for Senator Karen Mayne’s first responder bill. He says he’s also hesitant to vote for Iwamoto’s K9 bill.
King himself sponsored a bill to charge bystanders who refuse to intervene in certain life-threatening situations. That bill failed by a wide margin on the House floor.