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Ray Boren, KSL, File

Committee recommends bill that would ease gang enhancement penalty used on protesters last year

By Graham Dudley, | Posted - Jan. 21, 2021 at 5:38 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee favorably recommended a bill Thursday afternoon that would narrow the circumstances under which prosecutors could add a gang enhancement to criminal charges in Utah.

SB51 will now move to the full Senate for consideration.

The enhancement, originally intended to combat gang violence by adding another tool for prosecutors, came under scrutiny last summer after the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office used it to enhance charges against protesters who flipped and burned a police car during the May 30 downtown riot. It was also used against protesters who damaged the district attorney's office itself while protesting the police shooting of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal; those charges were downgraded after the Salt Lake DA passed the case to a third party.

The gang enhancement allows prosecutors to upgrade charges by one level for suspected criminal acts committed with at least two others. Under SB51, only judges could enhance penalties, not prosecutors; and the bill increases the number of people who must be involved from two to three.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, sponsored the bill and said it was developed in consultation with many stakeholders, including Utah prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the local offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. Along with positive comments, a handful of public commenters, including prosecutors, spoke against the bill or certain aspects of the bill during the committee hearing.

Thatcher said he was "disappointed" to hear what he described as last-minute objections after the collaborative bill drafting process, and said he wished the bill had gone further but wanted state prosecutors on board. The bill passed the committee unanimously.

SB51 must pass the Senate and House and be signed by Gov. Spencer Cox to become law.

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