County attorney caseload soaring

MANTI—The caseload in the Sanpete County Attorney’s Office is on track to nearly double this year compared to 2020.

Kevin Daniels, the county attorney, attributes the increase to a more aggressive approach to combating crime at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF), legislative action reducing penalties for many crimes, offenders committing new crimes while out on bail, and “people who are on the margins of society” moving in from urban areas. 

In 2020, the office handled 343 cases, double the number from four years earlier. In June, 2021, the count was already 300. If the office handles the same number of cases in July through December 2021 as it did in those same months in 2020, it will end the year with 650 cases, almost a 90 percent increase. 

Going back to the early 2000’s, Sanpete County has had one elected county attorney and one deputy county attorney. Earlier this year, the Sanpete County Commission authorized a third attorney. 

“God bless the commission for recognizing the workload and appropriating that other attorney,” Daniels says.

Now the question is whether three attorneys is enough. “Other counties with this caseload have four or five attorneys,” says Wes Mangum, who has been deputy county attorney since 2018. 

However, Daniels, who says he is a fiscal conservative and is always mindful of the taxpayer dollar, says he does not plan to request additional attorneys at this time.

Because CUCF is located in Sanpete County, the county continues to prosecute all crimes committed by inmates—and even pays for public defenders for the inmates. The county is trying to get out of nearly $100,000 per year in public defender costs. 

Daniels says Brian Nielson, former Sanpete County Sheriff, now director of the Utah Department of Corrections, is taking a tough stand on crimes in prisons.

The Utah Bureau of Investigation, which investigates such crimes, is scrutinizing incidents formerly handled internally, such as possession of contraband, possession of a shank and possession of suboxone (a prescription drug used in treating opiate addiction). 

Typically, an investigation of one inmate, such as for drug possession, ends up identifying six or seven other inmates who are involved, Daniels says. 

Reflecting the tougher stance on crimes in prison, charges are brought against them, also. All those cases end up in his office.

On single day a couple of weeks ago, state investigators dropped off 19 files from CUCF at the county attorney’s office, “and typically those have more than one case,” Mangum says. 

Because of criminal justice reform, penalties for many crimes have been reduced, which lowers the risk of committing the crimes. That can translate to more criminal cases. Daniels says, adding, “If the reform sticks in your craw, reach out to your legislators and request change.” 

He stresses, however, that local legislators are not the problem. The reforms have been pushed by legislators from the Wasatch Front.  

For instance, theft of livestock used to be a felony. Now the level of the crime depends on the value of the livestock. “Theft of a turkey became a Class B misdemeanor,” he says, which limited his options when DxE (Direct Action Everywhere), a California animal-rights group, took turkeys from local growers. 

Another consequence of criminal justice reform has been lower bail requirements, Daniels says. In 2020, the Legislature passed a measure requiring judges to consider ankle monitoring, referral for rehabilitation or regular check-ins rather than cash bail in many cases. 

After some high-profile cases in other counties, particularly one where a suspect who had shot at police officers was released without bail, the Legislature repealed the law, and Gov. Spencer Cox signed the repeal on March 24 of this year. Representatives from the criminal justice system are now negotiating a replacement measure.

But some suspects in Sanpete County were released prior to the repeal. And there’s been a general trend toward reduced bail. 

“It’s a lot more difficult to keep somebody in jail who needs to be there,” Daniels says. “This isn’t the fault of judges. They’re responding to legislative mandate.” 

A couple of weeks ago, on one day in court, six people who had been out on bail appeared on new charges, he says. 

One example of a suspect getting into trouble while out on bail is Kevin Otteson of Mt. Pleasant. While released on charges of stalking and violating a protective order, he got into a standoff that ultimately involved 13 officers. At one point, he drove his pickup toward the officers at 70 miles per hour. 

He is now being held, without bail, for attempted aggravated murder, among other charges, and still faces the earlier charges.

Finally, Daniels says, “for one reason or another, the number of crimes being committed is going up.” The increase could reflect population growth, including people moving in from the Wasatch Front.

While the great majority of newcomers are law-abiding, “some of our antiquated zoning rules create an incentive to come here for people who are on the margins of society,” Daniels says. “Somebody can pull into Hideaway Valley and live out of their trailer.” 

The permissive zoning regulations are in the process of being revised, he notes.