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PROVO — Utah County's top law enforcer says he wants to relieve pressure on his overworked staff by forgoing certain low-level cases, a move city attorneys contend would overwhelm them and could leave some offenses uncharged.
Prosecutors in Utah's fastest-growing county are now spread too thin to focus on the important crimes or serve victims properly, according to Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. So his office will leave some misdemeanor cases it previously handled to attorneys in the area's cities, a change he estimates will drop the number of cases his criminal lawyers take on each year from an average of 244 down to 175.
"This is not a wholesale dumping of misdemeanors to city attorneys. We're going to go after the charges that hurt people the most," Leavitt said Tuesday.
The plan is part of a larger overhaul that includes ranking and prioritizing the big cases, like the county's current 19 homicides, and choosing not to file certain criminal charges against first-time offenders if they complete treatment, do community service or pay restitution. The changes are set to take effect alongside the pre-filing diversion program, which goes into effect July 1
Utah's constitution directs county attorneys to handle class A misdemeanors in addition to felonies, but Leavitt believes prosecutors have the discretion to bypass more minor ones, like drug possession, and instead focus on more serious behavior, such as domestic violence, DUI and child abuse.
"It's not an effort to get soft on drugs," Leavitt said. "It's just an effort to bring the best benefits to society that we can."
This is not a wholesale dumping of misdemeanors to county attorneys. We're going to go after the charges that hurt people the most.
–Utah County Attorney David Leavitt
Several city attorneys contend the change would overburden their tiny offices, which advise local leaders and represent the city in civil disputes, in addition to prosecuting more minor class B and C misdemeanors, plus infractions like traffic violations.
"Someone is going to have to prosecute those offenses, and the city attorneys don't have the resources to do so," said Saratoga Springs City Attorney Kevin Thurman. He anticipates the shift would pile an extra 60-75 heroin and meth possession cases onto his office, where two full-time attorneys share the criminal and civil workload.
"We're definitely stretched thin as it is," said Thurman, who believes his counterparts within the county are universally opposed to the change.
"I get where they're coming from. I think that their office is underfunded by the county commission and that's the main problem. But the county commission and the county attorney's office can't expect cities to step up and fund the difference," Thurman said.
It's not an effort to get soft on drugs. It's just an effort to bring the best benefits to society that we can.
–Utah County Attorney David Leavitt
He likes the diversion program that favors treatment over penalties, but in cases where an offender doesn't qualify, he estimates, the county attorney still won't file charges. At that point, his city must step up, in part to maintain its good relationship with police, he said.
"Nobody wants to see those crimes go unprosecuted," Thurman said.
Provo, for its part, could not take on the extra load of misdemeanors if it wanted to, said Robert West, city attorney.
"Under state statute, it's clear that it's a discretionary function for us, and it's a responsibility, a duty, for the public prosecutor for the county," West said of the class A misdemeanors. "We don't have enough attorneys in our office to handle the eight courtrooms in the district court."
His office, including part-time employees, amounts to eight attorneys who already prosecute thousands of misdemeanors every year, in addition to defending the city and its airport in civil cases, he said.
The new county initiative is a dialed-down version of the plan Leavitt announced in an April letter to city prosecutors, which informed them his office would refer each class A misdemeanor within city limits to the city's attorney, except those uncovered by a major crimes task force or lumped in with felony cases.
Leavitt wrote that he believed the change "is in the interest of the public good," but walked the approach back after criticism from the city prosecutors. After hearing their concerns, his office will continue to handle the types of class A misdemeanors that his office deems a high priority, he said.
The original announcement "was admittedly a bit of an interception. It didn't articulate really what our motive was," Leavitt said Tuesday.
His prosecutors will continue to review police investigations to decide whether criminal charges fit the behavior, but will refer many of those cases to city attorneys, who will make the final call on whether to file a case.
Last year, Utah County's 19 line prosecutors had an average of about 244 criminal cases, while seven other attorneys supervised them, reviewed police investigations to determine if charges should be filed and handled fewer, more complex cases, according to figures provided by the office. The American Bar Association recommends a caseload of no more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors at a time.
Editor's note: An earlier version said Utah County Attorney David Leavitt does not consider his actions as "a wholesale dumping of misdemeanors to county attorneys." He actually said it is not dumping on city attorneys.