Invasive searches a welcome part of drug court

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SALT LAKE COUNTY -- It only takes one slip for drug addicts to be sent right back to where they started. That's why the defendants in Salt Lake County's drug court program are closely monitored. We're taking you along for a night of random home searches with the drug court officers.

The defendants and the cops in court have an interesting relationship. The officers do more than just supervise them; they are friends and allies in their recovery.

The knock can come at anytime, day or night. What follows is a thorough search. You can't hide anything in drug court.

Sgt. Scott Vanwagoner and Detective Mike Ashley keep the defendants from drug court in line by performing random home searches. They travel across the valley to every neighborhood, carefully going through cabinets and clothing.

You'd think with digging through the drawers and invasion of privacy, the defendants would despise this duo, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

"They don't view us as the street cop that would pull them over for a traffic violation," Sgt. Vanwagoner said. "We do care about our clients. We want them to succeed, because at this level we can keep them out of jail."

There's a level of friendship between the drug court officers and the defendants.

"It's not just the violation that we're interested in. We're interested to know that they're reaching out for help, because that's really what this program is about is help," Sgt. Vanwagoner said.

Sometimes, though, jail is a necessary part of the rehabilitation process. One woman relapsed and was on the run until the officers finally caught up with her. She clung to her children as the officers convinced her to turn herself in. She was taken to jail to wait for her next court appearance.

"Addiction and drug abuse of these types, it destroys everything it touches. It destroys lives, it destroys families, and it destroys relationships that these people are seeking," Sgt. Vanwagoner said.

The week before a drug court graduation, the officers check up on the defendants who are completing the program. A few fall back into old habits, and that's exactly what happened at one home where several defendants were living and doing drugs together.

Coming up:

"It's heartbreaking. You think they're making it and they're doing well, and this comes up and they don't make it," Detective Ashley said. "This individual was going to graduate on Monday. He's not going to graduate now."

The defendant at another home will graduate. Russ Hales grew up on the East side as part of a part of a strong, religious family. When his younger sister died suddenly from a rare illness, he says he went off the deep end.

"I don't think anyone is exempt, really, to the possibility of being a drug addict," he said.

He got caught using by police and landed in drug court. He spent nearly a year in jail. After going through the treatment program, his life is back on track.

"I went through some terrible times for sure, but I also learned a lot about myself and just about life in general," Hales said.

Overcoming addiction isn't easy, but the officers say it's possible in drug court.

Hales now has a full-time job and plans to go back to school. We continue our series, Thursday night at 6 when we'll show you what everyone involved with the program calls their favorite day -- graduation.



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Jennifer Stagg


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