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VERNAL — Two bailiffs have been disciplined and security procedures have been changed following an incident where a teenage girl was forgotten in a holding cell for hours after the state courthouse had closed for the day.
"It was a disappointment that my officers didn't follow through with what they needed to do," Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell said Wednesday, referring to the Aug. 1 incident at the 8th District courthouse in Vernal.
Four deputies working as bailiffs that day were providing security for a jury trial in one courtroom and for juvenile court proceedings in another, Merrell said. When Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele ordered one bailiff to take a 16-year-old girl into custody, the teen was placed in a holding cell to await transport to Split Mountain Youth Detention Center.
Public records just released to the Deseret News show that the girl was still in the holding cell when the courthouse closed at 5:22 p.m. She was discovered five hours later by the courthouse cleaning staff and taken by deputies to the detention center.
"It may have been fatigue, a little bit, with the jury trial and two courts going on at the same time," Merrell said. "But again, there's not a lot of excuse for forgetting about somebody."
Two bailiffs — the deputy who put the girl in the holding cell and her supervising sergeant — were punished following an internal affairs investigation that identified violations of department policy ranging from failure to supervise to engaging in conduct "that would tend to disrupt, diminish or otherwise jeopardize public trust and fidelity in law enforcement."
The sergeant was demoted to the rank of corporal and had his pay reduced, according to public disciplinary records obtained by the Deseret News. The deputy was suspended for one week without pay, the records show. Both employees were also reassigned to the jail and placed on disciplinary probation for one year.
"They took responsibility and we worked through it," Merrell said, noting that the sanctions weren't the only thing to come out of the internal affairs investigation. Courthouse security procedures and staffing patterns have recently been changed as well.
Both disciplined deputies cited "burnout" and understaffing as contributing factors in the incident, sheriff's office records show. Deputies are now rotated between the jail and the courts at regular intervals, the sheriff said, to avoid job fatigue.
As for increased staffing at the courts, that is unlikely to happen.
"I don't think more people is going to solve our problems," Merrell said. "I think we need to do our job and be cognizant of what we're doing."
As part of that belief, bailiffs have recently begun both regular and random security sweeps, the sheriff said.
The courthouse will be checked three times a day. Once in the morning, before anybody gets there, once sometime during the day, and then at night, before anyone goes home, those same routes will be checked again.
–Jeff Merrell, Uintah County Sheriff
"The courthouse will be checked three times a day," Merrell said. "Once in the morning, before anybody gets there, once sometime during the day, and then at night, before anyone goes home, those same routes will be checked again."
The sweeps must be documented on a list that identifies specific areas, like holding cells, that must be checked, the sheriff said.
Eighth District court administrator Russell Pearson said he's pleased with the changes, noting that similar procedures are being discussed for all of Utah's courthouses.
"We're also, at the courts, taking a look at policies that we need to have … to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again," said Pearson, who is part of a statewide committee evaluating courthouse operations.
Merrell acknowledged that forgetting someone in a holding cell gave his office a black eye. But he also said he believes positive changes have been made.
"I think it made our department better, because people took a look inside themselves and said, 'How can I do a better job?'" the sheriff said. "We take responsibility for what occurred, we've taken corrective action with employees and we've made a plan for the future."