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Utah man claims erroneous 'commercial terrorism' charges damaged his reputation

Published September 8, 2015 2:48 pm

Courts • Scott Eckersley pleaded no contest to class A misdemeanors for junking tourism brochures placed in resort lobby.
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Scott Eckersley thought he was doing nothing criminal when he threw away free tourism brochures that weren't authorized to be in the lobby of a Midway resort where he owned a room.

But within weeks of the May incident, the 38-year-old Midway resident would be arrested in the parking lot of his church after services, thrown into jail for 20 hours and charged with multiple counts of felony commercial terrorism for chucking the brochures.

Eckerlsey, who recently resolved the case by pleading no contest to two class A misdemeanor counts of commercial obstruction, said in an interview with The Tribune that he blames a bad police investigation and overzealous prosecutors for damaging his reputation.

"It just seemed very amateur … to call somebody a terrorist," Eckerlsey said. "Just the fact that they would use that term, which is so incredibly damaging to a human being, much less a professional."

Eckersley admits that there is some bad blood between the pamphlet company and his own digital advertising company, but said he never put his own business ads in the advertising racks as police initially told various media outlets. He said he had no interest in advertising in the same lobby, but was bothered that the brochures remained there without authorization from the three-member HOA board.

"I don't know if I technically did anything wrong," he said. "In a sense, it's as if someone was to leave a couch on your front doorstep. At some point, they shouldn't be surprised to see it tossed."

Eckersley said when he initially saw the brochures, he confirmed with his HOA representative at the Zermatt Resort that the company did not have authorization to put them there. When the brochures weren't removed, he decided to throw them away and left an HOA declaration document in its place, which highlighted the building's restrictions on signs and advertising without permission.

The next day, the fliers were back. So again, he threw them away and left a copy of the HOA agreement.

The third time he saw the brochures return to the rack, Eckersley said he got fed up and threw the entire cardboard rack in the trash.

Weeks later, police officers came to his church and arrested him, Eckersley said. He was booked into jail, and charged in 4th District Court with four counts of second-degree felony commercial terrorism and one count of third-degree felony prescription or use of a controlled substance.

Eckersley said he was surprised that the term "commercial terrorism" was used in charging documents, because the state legislature amended the wording of the charge to "commercial obstruction" during the 2010 session. The charge itself was initially intended to target animal-rights activists who disrupt businesses while protesting, according to previous news accounts.

He said the drug charge stemmed from a single prescription pill in his pocket, and said once he could show police the prescription bottle at home, the charge was dropped.

But Eckersley, a federal immigration attorney, said the damage was done: The initial charges labeled him "a terrorist, a drug user and a felon," and his businesses suffered.

Wasatch County prosecutor Case Wade said "there was no calculated decision" to use the word "terrorism" in Eckersley's charging documents, but said it was the wording inserted by the computer program used by prosecutors to draft charges.

"We had multiple charges that could potentially fit," Wade said. "We felt like a class A misdemeanor would be a good plea result."

But Wade said that in order to reach that desired resolution, prosecutors normally would charge a crime only one step higher. However, because there is no third-degree felony crime dealing with commercial obstruction, Wade said Eckersley was charged with the second-degree felonies instead.

"It wouldn't have been a slam-dunk case at trial," Wade said. "... We always intended to come down [on the charges]."

Wade said there was some confusion about whether the brochures were authorized by the Zermatt's HOA to be in the lobby because there are three HOAs that govern various parts of the property.

"We charged what we had available to us," Wade said. "When we get a plea deal, we try to get the right plea deal that was just. We weren't thinking he was a terrible guy out there running amok ... It seemed like it was an emotional, ill-thought-out response. We could understand some of his confusion."

But Eckersley insists that the HOA for his building did not authorize the brochures to be there at that time — though the company has since gotten proper approval.

"We worked really hard to get that [plea] deal," Eckersley said. "I don't think I did anything wrong. Regardless, there's not anyone in their right mind who is going to fight that or leave it up to 12 jurors [at trial.]"

Eckersley said he has since lost a number of clients, and is considering filing a defamation suit against police and prosecutors for making untrue statements about the case to the media and labeling him a "terrorist." He doesn't believe criminal charges were warranted, given the situation.

"I don't think this was an instance where tax payers dollars needed to be used," he said. "Where the time and docket space needed to be used and one of the community's residents needed to be dragged through the mud. … This was a civil remedy from the beginning. This really had no reason to be caught up in the criminal [system.]"

Eckersley's pleas were held in abeyance, meaning that if he does not commit any other crimes and follows other conditions set by the court, his case will be dismissed in 18 months.


Twitter: @jm_miller






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