Audit: Small town Utah cops targeted foreign tourists
Springdale • Audit says officers in "Gateway to Zion" illegally cited foreigners, made them pay cash and failed to log fines.
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SPRINGDALE • Police in the town that promotes itself as "The Gateway to Zion National Park" wrote citations to foreign tourists, required them to pay cash and didn't document the fines, according to a Utah State audit released Monday.

Also, perhaps thousands of dollars in fines collected by Springdale police are missing, the audit says. Auditors can't be sure because Springdale police kept poor records.

"Thus, the possibility exists that officers could have written citations, collected the citation fines from defendants on the spot ..., destroyed the citations, and kept the money without anyone ever detecting," state auditors wrote.

It wasn't immediately clear if there were any criminal investigations into the practices. Utah Attorney General spokesman Paul Murphy said that office has not been contacted about the findings. Ryan Shaum, the lead prosecutor at the Washington County Attorney's Office, said he was not aware of any criminal investigation.

Besides the question of the missing money, the audit says the practices violated at least five state statutes and that Springdale police violated the tourists' rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection.

Springdale's mayor and police chief declined interview requests on Monday, but the city government released a statement saying it had corrected the procedures addressed in the audit.

"To clarify," the statement also said, "foreign violators were always given the option to appear before the magistrate, send the fine in by bail, or pay for the offense at the time of violation; cash bail being an option due to the fact that it was extremely difficult to collect bail from foreign defendants once they returned to their respective countries."

The claim foreign tourists were always given an option other than on-the-spot payment is contradicted in the audit report.

The audit examined the Springdale Police Department's citations system for 13 months ending in January. The audit report describes Springdale police as stopping foreign tourists for various offenses and forcing them to pay a cash fine or bail on the spot. The report says the auditor's office received a complaint from a European who received a citation and "the police officer said that she must pay the fine immediately and that it had to be paid in cash."

The practice amounted to a "police officer acting in the capacity of law enforcement, judge, and jury," auditors wrote.

In the first 10 months of 2011, Springdale police collected $11,640 from foreign tourists in the improper manner, the audit report said.

Motorists or other suspected offenders are supposed to receive a written citation with instructions to pay a fine or appear in court and plead not guilty by a certain date. Also, the defendant, the police and the respective court are all supposed to receive and keep copies of the citation.

Separate from what was done with foreign tourists, auditors found missing citations. The audit said it reviewed 423 citations issued over a 13-month period and 138 were missing from Springdale police records. A police officer could have pocketed the cash in any of those 138, the audit said.

Citations written by Springdale police are supposed to be forwarded to the justice court in Hurricane. Since police didn't forward the cash-only citations there, Washington County and the state did not receive their share of the money.

In written responses included in the audit, Springdale police said it would make restitution to the courts for fines not received and that the collection of money from tourists had the approval of a previous Hurricane Justice Court judge. Auditors said the court denied any approval from a judge and that any such agreement would be illegal anyway.

Springdale police also told auditors foreign defendants "were happy to post cash bail to alleviate the inconvenience of paying by mail or appearing before the magistrate."

Springdale has only about 500 residents, but because it sits at the south entrance to Zion National Park, the bulk of the park's 2.8 million annual visitors pass through the town. Springdale police also provide protection to the hamlets of Rockville and Virgin. The city of Springdale's website says the police department has three full-time officers plus reserve officers.

Shelley Cox, who owns Blondie's Diner on Springdale's main drag, estimated 9 out of 10 of her customers are from foreign countries. She said they learn about Blondie's famous burgers and Philly cheesesteaks that are suppose to be better than what you can find in Philadelphia through word of mouth and websites.

When told of the audit Monday, Cox worried those same promotional vehicles may spread word of what Springdale police had done and deter foreigners from visiting.

"Foreigners are pretty important to all of us" businesses, Cox said.

Todd Harris, who owns Zion Prospector, a rock and gem shop outside the park, said he didn't like the police department's practice, but was skeptical foreign tourists would hear about the problems. Harris also wondered if the practice was a convenience for tourists.

"If it were me and they'd let me pay right there, I think I'd like to just get it over with," Harris said.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle