06 March 2021

  • 2021 Utah Legislature wrapped: Lawmakers exert control over COVID-19 restrictions
    House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, casts a yes vote as he talks on the phone in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the last day of the 2021 legislative session. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    Lawmakers avoided COVID-19 outbreak while hammering out $23 billion budget, variety of hot-button issues

    SALT LAKE CITY — After 45 days of grappling with a wide range of issues — from exerting legislative control over COVID-19 restrictions to how to spend the state’s more than $23 billion budget to sorting through dozens of police reform bills — the Utah Legislature concluded its 2021 general session before midnight Friday.

    It was a rare early ending to a legislative session, as lawmakers decided to wrap up business early even though a handful of bills remained to expire without action.

    If you ask Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, it was a legislative session that marked “the year” for just about everything in spite of economic challenges from the pandemic.

    “The list is long,” Adams said in a media availability this week as lawmakers worked to put final touches on the budget. “This is the year for a tax cut. The year for education. The year for infrastructure. It’s the year for affordable housing.... It’s been a heck of a year.”

    With over $1.5 billion in extra revenue to spend this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers tackled how to spend — and in some ways give back — taxpayer money. The better-than-expected revenues put Utah in an enviable position, legislative leaders said, with enough one-time cash and bonding power to fund more than $1.2 billion in infrastructure projects including $300 million toward double-tracking FrontRunner, $100 million in tax cuts for some Utahns who are retired, veterans or families with children, $50 million for affordable housing and homelessness, and over $400 million for education.

    Rural Utah and economic development projects like the Utah Inland Port Authority also saw big commitments of cash. Lawmakers funded $115 million for an “infrastructure bank,” a new mechanism to stash state money to be used as loans for future development, including $75 million for Utah Inland Port Authority projects on and off the Wasatch Front. The other $40 million of that money would be used mostly for rural broadband infrastructure not specifically related to the inland port.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, left, and Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, chat in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

    Coronavirus: The elephant that never left the room

    Even though lawmakers tackled many issues other than the pandemic, it was also certainly the year of COVID-19.

    The virus loomed over the entire legislative session: Both as a physical threat to lawmakers and staff, and to what some Republican lawmakers considered a threat to legislative powers and personal liberty.

    Gov. Spencer Cox, who inherited his predecessor and former boss’ power struggle with a Legislature concerned about executive authority amid a pandemic, spent much of the session negotiating behind the scenes with lawmakers to temper two bills aimed at restricting emergency powers and spelling out the timeline to end Utah’s pandemic-related restrictions — including an end date of April 10 for the statewide mask mandate.

    In the final hours of the session just as both those bills won final legislative passage, Cox told reporters he supported the final version of both bills.

    “Every day we’re vaccinating upwards of 25,000 people,” Cox said, adding that if most vulnerable Utahns are vaccinated, “then the restrictions don’t matter as much.”

    “So we won’t get through everyone before the potential mask mandate can go away, but we’ll go through a lot of people,” Cox said, adding that it’s “important” to note that the mask mandate will still stay in place for gatherings over 50 people. And the governor said if the pandemic takes a turn, legislative bodies can enact new restrictions if need be.

    Cox said his team worked hard to negotiate both HB294 and SB195, and were comfortable with where they ended up to balance executive powers while consenting to the Legislature’s desire to codify its role as a legislative branch in a prolonged emergency.

    “That’s part of what they wanted. They wanted to be more involved in these discussions, and it’s their power, not the governor’s,” Cox said. “And I think people have to understand that. The Legislature owns this now, and so that comes with that responsibility.”

    Lawmakers began the session masked up in a heavily guarded Capitol that was closed to the public for the first week after fears of violence in the wake of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and amid national unease during the transition from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    Rep. Kay J. Christofferson, R-Lehi, is applauded as he returns to the House chamber for the first time since he contracted COVID-19, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

    Throughout the session, lawmakers guarded themselves against COVID-19 with masks — though some were more lax than others — a handshake ban, plexiglass barriers between House desks, and daily COVID-19 testing of legislators and staff. It was the Legislature’s first hybrid general session, with virtual and in-person options for both lawmakers and members of the public.

    COVID-19 reared its head early in the session, with three cases detected in the first week among staff members. Soon after two lawmakers tested positive but isolated at home, where they cast their votes virtually. After those initial cases, no others have been detected on Capitol Hill, according to daily reports the Utah Department of Health provided to the Deseret News.

    Midsession, the Deseret News and other media outlets reported House legislative leaders saw it necessary to deem nearly two dozen staffers as “critical” workers and gave them early access to COVID-19 vaccinations before the session started. Throughout the session, both House and Senate leaders said no lawmakers were vaccinated unless they qualified under the proper age groups and work requirements for the vaccine.

    At least two lawmakers had ugly battles with COVID-19, which they caught before the session began. Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, missed almost two weeks after he was hospitalized with the disease, later participating virtually while on oxygen. Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, was absent from almost the entire session while he battled the virus, only appearing virtually the second-to-last day of the session from his intensive care unit hospital bed to a teary standing ovation from his fellow House colleagues.

    House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told the Deseret News one of the hardest parts of this year’s session was “my concern for Rep. Hawkins.”

    “There was a time where we were really worried about his ability to get out of the hospital,” Wilson said. “That was probably the low point for me, is when he’d been in the ICU for two to three weeks, and we were really concerned he might not get out. Thank goodness he seems to be heading that direction.”

    Hawkins’ absence and his surprise hello toward the end of the session marked the “lowlight” and the “highlight” of the session, Wilson said.

    “It’s interesting,” Wilson said. “All this policy and all these billions of dollars. But the people side of what we do here is pretty important.”

    Dealing with several hot-button issues

    A mixed bag of controversial issues kept lawmakers busy throughout the session, from a bill to make Utah the next state to allow concealed carrying of a firearm without a permit, to legislation to exclude transgender girls from participating on girls sports teams in public schools, to the fiery debate around Dixie State University’s name change.

    • Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, sponsored HB60, the bill to drop the permit requirement for Utahns to carry a concealed firearm for people age 21 and older. HB60 sailed through the GOP-majority Legislature despite protests from Democrats, and the governor signed it soon after — something his predecessor Gov. Gary Herbert declined to do when lawmakers passed similar legislation years earlier. The law takes effect May 5.
    • LGBTQ advocates celebrated with hugs and tears when Rep. Kira Birkeland’s HB302, which would have banned transgender athletes from girls sports in public schools, hit a dead end in a Senate committee. While Birkeland, R-Morgan, argued it was necessary to protect a “fair playing field” for girls, LGBTQ advocates including Equality Utah saw it as unnecessary, harmful and discriminatory for transgender Utahns. An emotional Cox also grappled with the bill and said he wouldn’t sign it.
    • Lawmakers faced the painful debate over whether Dixie State University should change its name, and whether the Legislature should require it do so without the word “Dixie,” a term known throughout the nation as tied to the Confederate South, Civil War and slavery.

    Supporters of the change argued the name “Dixie” is harming the school’s reputation and students as they seek graduate school admission and employment. Detractors argued the term had no relation to slavery in Utahns’ minds, with the origin of the name coming from Latter-day Saint pioneers who came to the area to grow cotton.

    House leaders supported HB278, which laid out a name change to explicitly rule out the use of the term “Dixie.” But the bill ran into trouble in the Senate.

    Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, who is also vice chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee, fought to change the bill, arguing for the community’s deep attachment to the Dixie name. Ultimately, the Senate approved a bill that doesn’t expressly exclude a university name with Dixie in it but committed $500,000 to help preserve the institution’s history if the DSU trustees and Utah Board of Higher Education recommend a name that does not include “Dixie.”

    • A visit from Paris Hilton put Utah on the national stage as the celebrity socialite pushed for passage of SB127 to enact more regulations on the state’s “troubled teen” centers. The bill sets new rules for the industry for the first time in 15 years.

    Hilton gave emotional and graphic testimony in front of a panel of Senate lawmakers, describing how she experienced “unconstitutional, degrading and terrifying” abuse in the 1990s at Provo Canyon School at the hands of staff who she said forced her to take medication that made her feel “numb and exhausted,” watched her go to the bathroom and shower, and threw her into a “solitary confinement” in a room she described as “covered in scratch marks and smeared blood with no bathroom.”

    The weight of the testimony from her and others, including a Utah man, baffled lawmakers, leaving some incredulous as to how such “disgusting” abuse of children had persisted for decades inside these youth facilities without accountability.

    Propelled by Hilton’s influence, the bill sailed through the Legislature without controversy.

    • HB168, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sought to limit the sale of do-it-yourself sexual assault test kits, arguing they give “false hope” to rape victims because they’re widely considered inadmissible in court. Despite emotional testimony from victims, a Senate committee held the bill after some legislators questioned how a prohibition of their sale could impact the freedoms of buyers and sellers.

    Police reform

    After a summer of unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last year, the Legislature faced dozens of bills aimed at police reform — some of which passed. Others didn’t.

    Like legislative leaders said would happen at the beginning of the session, Utah saw no “sweeping” police reforms, though numerous bills that passed made measured changes to put incremental checks on police use of force, reporting requirements, investigation timelines, inter-agency information sharing, and more.

    Some of those bills that now head to the governor’s desk include:

    • HB84, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would require local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit data on use-of-force-incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a state and federal database.
    • HB162, also sponsored by Romero, which would require 16 of the 40 hours of training police officers are required to complete each year to be focused on de-escalation tactics and working with individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
    • HB264, also Romero’s, which would require a law enforcement officer to file a report after pointing a firearm or a Taser at a person.
    • A watered-down use of force bill, HB237, that in its final form sought to prevent “suicide by cop” by clarifying in training requirements that when someone is threatening suicide, an officer should try to use “strategic withdrawal” rather than engagement.
    • SB38, which would require annual certification of K-9 officers and their handlers. The bill came after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall suspended and then censured the Salt Lake Police Department’s K-9 program after a review found 18 questionable dog bites dating back to 2018. Mendenhall called the findings a “pattern of abuse.”
    • SB106, a bill that sought more uniform use-of-force standards to be established across the state.

    Lawmakers struck down some more dramatic attempts at police reform bills. Some of the bills that hit dead ends included:

    • HB245, a scaled-back bill that wouldn’t have outright banned no-knock warrants, but would have placed more guardrails around the tactic.
    • HB74, which would have allowed cities to create their own elected police oversight boards.
    • HB133, which would have required release of body camera footage within 10 days of incidents that result in death or bodily injury or whenever an officer fires a gun.
    • HB367, would change Utah’s “qualified immunity” law to allow police officers and police agencies to be sued if a person is injured or killed by the “unlawful, negligent or improper conduct” of a police officer while on duty.
    • HB154, another watered down use-of-force bill that would have set a timeline for completion of investigations into an officer’s use of force and require that certain information be posted online.
    • SB157, a bill to implement a program to assist cities and counties to establish citizen advisory boards. The bill cleared the Senate but was never heard in the House.

    Other bills were inspired by the killing of University of Utah student Lauren McCluskey and how police handled her case. Some of those that were approved and now head to the governor’s desk include:

    • SB13, which seeks to ensure a police officer can’t skirt an internal investigation simply by jumping to a new police department. Today, if a police officer leaves an agency in the middle of an internal investigation, the investigation is dropped. It was inspired by a former University of Utah police officer who showed explicit photos of McCluskey to other officers, according to an independent investigation. The officer left the university before the internal affairs investigation was completed and was later hired at the Logan Police Department.
    • HB59, which would make it a crime for a police officer to share intimate images to anyone who is not part of an investigation. The bill was also inspired by the incident involving the same former University of Utah police officer.
    • HB147, which would specifically outlaw the sharing of intimate images without consent outside legitimate law enforcement investigative purposes, regardless of whether a victim is alive to suffer emotional distress. McCluskey provided intimate photos with a university police officer to aid in the investigation of her eventual killer, Melvin Shawn Rowland, 37, who was blackmailing her with the images. A review conducted by the Utah Department of Public Safety found that officer accessed them multiple times and showed them to others on his phone on at least four occasions.

    Local control

    As it does every year, local control debates boiled over into issues ranging from billboards to mother-in-law basement apartments.

    Two bills ardently opposed by cities and towns would have been very friendly to the billboard industry: SB61 would have allowed billboard companies to revamp any existing billboard across the state into an electronic billboard. Another, SB144, would have blocked city officials from restricting building or remodeling of existing billboards, and would allow billboard companies to sue cities for violating that law.

    Billboards, especially electronic billboards, have been a hotly debated issue, especially in Salt Lake City, for years. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker carried that baton, considering them a visual blight that detracted from the Wasatch Front’s natural scenery. Local control advocates won out on the billboard fight, and both bills hit dead ends. SB61 failed on a narrow vote in the Senate, and SB144 stalled there, too.

    As for a bill looking to break down barriers for mother-in-law basement apartments — pitched as a free-market approach to increasing affordable housing — another local control debate also revolved around HB82, which would prohibit Utah cities and towns from setting what bill sponsor Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, called too many “roadblocks” in the way of Utahns wanting to rent out their own basements.

    The bill was negotiated down to still remove zoning barriers for those so-called “accessory dwelling units,” but with some compromises to cities and towns to allow certain types of city regulations. The compromise version of the bill was approved by both the House and Senate, and now heads to the governor’s desk.

  • Final day at Capitol: Governor says he’s OK with bill lifting statewide mask mandate April 10
    Rep. Kay J. Christofferson, R-Lehi, speaks on Friday, March 5, 2021, in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City for the first time since battling COVID-19. He is on oxygen. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox says he won’t veto a bill lifting the statewide mask mandate April 10.

    The Senate on Friday night passed HB294 setting the timetable to lift COVID-19 restrictions, but amended the House-approved measure to end the statewide mask mandate by April 10 except for groups of over 50 where people cannot social distance. The House agreed, giving the bill final approval and sending it to the governor for him to sign or veto.

    “We worked really hard to get that bill across the finish line,” Cox told reporters Friday night, expressing confidence that by that April 10 date most vulnerable Utahns will be vaccinated. “Look, every day we’re vaccinating upward of 25,000 people.”

    The legislation is among the 503 bills and resolutions passed in the 2021 Legislature, which is mandated to end by midnight, but the House adjourned just after 10:30 p.m. and the Senate followed soon after.

    HB294 declares Utah’s pandemic restrictions over either when the state hits a list of benchmarks or July 1, whichever comes first.

    For a lifting of other restrictions — except for mask mandates in K-12 schools until July 1 — the measures listed in the bill include if the state reaches a 14-day COVID-19 case rate less than 191 per 100,000 people, when the statewide seven-day average of COVID-19 ICU bed utilization is less than 15%, and when the state has been allocated 1.63 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

    Cox specifically pointed to the provision in the bill requiring mask mandates for large groups.

    “That’s really important,” he said. “So we feel much better with where the bill is today.”

    The governor also noted that if Utah’s declining COVID-19 cases rise again, lawmakers could always come back into a special session and enact new restrictions.

    “The Legislature owns this now,” Cox said. “And so that comes with that responsibility.”

    The Senate sponsor of the bill was glad to have the April date.

    “With this bill I’m happy to say we can go back and tell our constituents we have identified and we now know what it looks like when the numbers and the data tell us when we can change (back to normal),” said Senate sponsor Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green.

    “It winds us down,” he said, calling it an “amazing thing” that would spell out exactly when the state would be able to “safely” transition back to normal. He said it was negotiated in consultation with both Gov. Spencer Cox’s team and the Utah Department of Health.

    But when the bill returned to the House for final approval of the amendment, concerns were raised.

    “As a medical doctor and one of the few people with medical expertise in this body, I think we need a little bit of humility as legislators that we don’t know everything, that we have medical experts that have been consulting with our public officials, and we’re doing a lot of things right,” said Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Sandy.

    Harrison noted one of their fellow lawmakers, Rep. Jon Hawkins, “nearly died of this disease... And all of us have lost friends or loved ones to this awful disease.”

    “The science is irrefutable. It has saved lives. It is helping us head in the right direction. And I think this type of prescriptive language is unnecessary to legislate. We’re heading in the right direction. We shouldn’t celebrate victory before the race is won... Let’s finish strong,” said Harrison.

    The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said that if there is another outbreak, county commissioners can put mask mandates back in place through a vote.

    “(Gov. Spencer Cox) wanted to go into May, but even going into April gives them time to actually get shots in the arms. That actually helps increase our herd immunity so that there’s less likely to have a re-outbreak,” he said.

    When asked about herd immunity, Ray said the governor’s office did not have a specific percentage in mind because it is a moving target. He then criticized the CDC, which he said he thought stood for “can’t do crap,” for changing the herd immunity requirements because “they want to encourage people to get the vaccines.”

    Among the bills debated today:

    Lawmakers put ‘capstone’ on state’s $23 billion budget

    Utah lawmakers quickly voted Friday night to approve SB3, the “bill of bills” to finalize the state’s $23.5 billion budget — what Senate Budget Chairman Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, called probably “the largest bill of bills” he’s ever seen.

    SB3 puts what Stevenson called a “capstone” on the state’s budget, which funded ongoing operations with the help of more than $1.5 billion in extra revenue lawmakers had to spend this year. The bill funds a $1.2 billion package of one-time money and bonding to fund infrastructure, $100 million in tax cuts for some Utahns, $50 million for affordable housing and homelessness, and over $400 million for education.

    Stevenson recalled how almost exactly a year ago, the Utah lawmakers had just finalized the budget before it dawned on them COVID-19 had changed everything.

    “When we stepped out of here a year ago, we faced a pandemic and a very unknown future,” Stevenson said. “We had no idea what was going to take place.”

    Lawmakers then slashed the budget, bracing for economic impacts of the budget. But fast forward a year later, with better-than-expected revenues despite the pandemic, Stevenson said lawmakers were able to restore those defunded items and do so much more.

    “As someone who has been involved in this since early in the session... and the session before that and the session before that, I am extremely pleased with the balanced budget that we’ve produced.”

    Mixed bag for some of the police reform bills

    A bill that would place a time limit on police use-of-force investigations failed in the Senate. HB154 floor sponsor Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill “does two major things,” including mapping out a process for making information public on a county or district attorney’s website.

    It also clarifies that an officer should identify themselves as a peace officer and “give a clear oral warning of his or her intent to use a firearm or other physical force.”

    Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, questioned whether officers should face more requirements when faced with critical decisions.

    “In those moments, those intense moments where a police officer is called upon to possibly use deadly force, I don’t want them to be obligated in the back of their mind to think, ‘Did I identify myself?’” Sandall said.

    The bill failed 15-13.

    The Senate did, however, pass a bill that seeks to prevent “suicide by cop.” The bill’s floor sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said HB237 would clarify in training requirements that when someone is threatening suicide, an officer should try to use “strategic withdrawal” rather than engagement.

    After some lawmakers expressed concern about the bill, Vickers acknowledged their concerns but emphasized that law enforcement agencies support it.

    The bill passed 16-11.

    The Senate also passed HB264, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, which would require a law enforcement officer to file a report after pointing a firearm or a conductive energy device at a person. The bill passed 20-7.

    Note to feds: Hands off local police reform

    The House voted unanimously to pass SJR13, a resolution sending a message to President Joe Biden and the federal government that states shape their own criminal justice reform policy.

    The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, called it a message bill that was worth approving, especially in a year where the U.S. faced calls to “defund the police” in wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

    The resolution urges the federal government to “respect state criminal justice priorities and advance change through partnerships rather than mandates.” Wilcox said the resolution wasn’t aimed at any specific political party, but decried any encroachment from the federal government on shaping police reform policy.

    “When we have a federal partner that is bent on enforcing their will through Department of Justice grants demanding we change our policy to (access) assistance from federal partners, we don’t have partners acting in good faith,” Wilcox said.

    Right after the House voted 72-0, with Democrats joining the vote, the House honored about a dozen Utah Highway Patrol troopers with a standing ovation.

    “We appreciate this year in particular we’ve asked more of you,” Wilcox said, referring to increased security at the Capitol in Salt Lake City after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol. “We know that we’ve asked more of you.... We appreciate you choosing to be here to protect this building and to watch out for each one of us that work here.”

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    A Utahraptor skull is displayed in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

    Dinosaur skull takes a spot at the dais to mark park creation

    A Utahraptor skull sat on the House speaker’s dais Friday afternoon as lawmakers went on passing bills.

    It was placed there to celebrate lawmakers’ decision this year to fund the creation of Utahraptor State Park in the Dalton Wells area in Grand County after the park was defunded last year amid budget cuts ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers also funded the creation of Lost Creek State Park, renamed from Lost Creek Reservoir in Morgan County. The cost of both parks totaled $36.5 million.

    Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has for years pushed the creation of Utahraptor State Park, said the skull was pulled out of the Dalton Wells area. Eliason also said two models of the Utahraptor sat in a back room accessible to lawmakers.

    “Interestingly, you’ll notice they are both broken if you look closely,” Eliason said, adding they were “shaken off the shelf” during the 5.9 magnitude earthquake last March, “and they’re still in the process of being repaired.”

    No school report cards this academic year

    The Senate gave final passage Friday to SB184, which lifts the requirement that the Utah State Board of Education publish school-level report cards for the current school year. Sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, the bill also pauses the requirement that the State School Board identify Utah’s worst-performing public schools for the state turnaround program. The program provides additional resources for three years to help struggling schools improve their performance.

    While schools may test their students and the state can collect the data, the results will not be published.

    “The reality is that our students are experiencing a wide range of impacts from COVID-19 based on circumstances, income levels, access to health care, food security, race, ethnicity, and the reality is only a small handful of students will probably even test this year and those will be the most advantaged,” Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews told the Senate Education Committee earlier in the session.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, gets emotional while speaking in opposition to SB214 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021. Lawmakers agreed to back away from English as the official language of Utah government by passing SB214, sponsored by Senate Majority Assistant Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper.

    Moving away from English-only for state government

    Lawmakers agreed to back away from English as the official language of Utah government by passing SB214, sponsored by Senate Majority Assistant Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper.

    The bill passed the House 55-17 Friday after clearing the Senate on Tuesday.

    “We need to be able to communicate with all Utahns.... This will provide clarity for all agencies and local governments,” floor sponsor Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said.

    The English requirement was suspended by executive order of former Gov. Gary Herbert to ensure everyone would be able to get pandemic-related information in the language they understood.

    Restrictions on executive powers get final approval

    The Senate passed on concurrence a revised bill to restrict Utah gubernatorial, mayoral and local health department powers to issue prolonged emergency orders.

    SB195 was approved by the Utah House of Representatives Thursday evening. The House did, however, amend the bill to explicitly prohibit government restrictions on religious gatherings unless its the “least restrictive means available” and “requires reasonable accommodations be provided for certain religious practices or rites.”

    The bill passed unanimously.

    Reviewing presidential orders

    The Senate passed HB415, sponsored by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, which would allow the state’s Constitutional Defense Council to review certain executive orders by the president of the United States. Under the bill, the attorney general or governor could seek to have an executive order declared an unconstitutional exercise of legislative authority by the president.

    The bill also restricts the enforceability of certain executive orders.

    The bill passed 18-6 along party lines. It passed the House Tuesday and goes to the governor.

    Task force to fight food insecurity after all

    Utahns Against Hunger had expressed disappointment about SB141, which would create a task force on food security, being stalled in the House despite winning approval from the Senate.

    “We are deeply disappointed that the House isn’t interested in addressing the issue of food security through data driven solutions,” Utahns Against Hunger said in a news release Friday.

    In the last year, food insecurity rates have more than doubled in Utah, according to Utahns Against Hunger, which cited a study conducted by Northwestern University that showed food insecurity has climbed from 8.2% in February 2020 to 19.3% in December 2020.

    Bill sponsor Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, worked with the group to address food security issues with the bill, which eventually made it to the floor as one of the last bills passed this session.

    The House approved the measure at 10:32 p.m., and the Senate concurred with the substituted bill at 10:45 p.m.

    Better tracking of data on use of force by police sails through

    Without debate, the Senate gave final approval to one of several police reform bills that have made their way through the Legislature this year. HB84, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would require local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit data on police use-of-force incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Identification, a state and federal database.

    HB84 sailed through the Legislature without controversy and was lauded as an important measure to track data on police use-of-force incidents to inform future policies.

    Physician assistants may soon practice mental health therapy

    An effort to expand the ability of physician assistants to practice mental health therapy, SB28, passed the House unanimously on Friday.

    Sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would allow physician assistants who are specializing in mental health to actually practice mental health therapy.

    “It’s not an easy path, but it provides a path... it does allow those who want to open their own business to practice,” said floor sponsor Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville.

    Bramble also sponsored SB27 to expand rights of physician assistants to practice outside the tight overwatch of a doctor.

    Lawmakers add support to downwinders compensation

    The Senate passed HCR18, which supports congressional efforts to extend and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which compensates “downwinders” who were exposed to radiation during nuclear weapons testing between 1945 and 1962.

    “There is legislation pending in Congress to extend the downwinders act, my mother actually was a downwinder,” said bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City. He said the bill urges Congress to act on that legislation.

    Kitchen inspections coming for people selling homemade meals

    Health inspections and licensing will now be required for anyone selling homemade food in Utah. HB94 passed the Senate on Friday 25-2 after it passed the House unanimously in mid-February.

    The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, was especially concerned about the sale and preparation of hot foods and meats versus the cookies and cakes that previously filled social media news feeds.

    “Quite frankly, this is going on all over the place right now, and probably in every one of our districts. It’s happening,” Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said to the Senate.

    For the first year, there will be a cap on how many home kitchens can apply for licenses.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, speaks in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 5, 2021, the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.

    Vickers said these microenterprise home kitchens that provide this ready-to-eat food will be able to come under health and food requirements while still providing income to the families that participate in it.

    Schools will get heads up on public health orders

    Utah’s public and private schools would be notified before the issuance of public health orders that will affect them under SB187

    “This bill doesn’t go as far as I would like it to go,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, during House debate. “So what we came up with is at least they have to come up with a conversation of what the need is, what the plan is.”

    The bill provides an opportunity for districts and private schools to give feedback and participate in conversations with the governor, health officials or the chief executive of a county over an impending order or extension of an order.

    The substituted bill won final passage in the Senate Friday afternoon by a vote of 20-7.

    Modifications to medical marijuana laws pass

    The House passed SB192, which makes dozens of administrative changes to the medical marijuana law proposed to improve the state’s program that began last year.

    Among larger changes, the bill would require the electronic verification system for those registered in the system to communicate dispensing information to the controlled substance database; allow for a 15th medical pharmacy to be licensed in a specific location; and remove a requirement that cannabis products are packaged in opaque material.

    The bill passed 68-2.

    State to boycott businesses that boycott Israel

    Utah is joining 32 other states to limit government business with companies that boycott Israel over “Palestinian issue.”

    SB186, sponsored by Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, would prevent any state government agency from doing business with a company that is currently boycotting the nation of Israel.

    “Israel is an important trading partner for the state of Utah... We have a value system that is very much the same as theirs,” said Stevenson.

    The bill passed the Legislature with a 48-16 vote from the House on Friday 48-16.

    Process set for voluntary ‘no-buy’ gun registry

    The Senate gave final approval to HB267, which creates a process for someone in crisis to voluntarily place themselves on a “no-buy” gun list to restrict them from buying a firearm for a limited time period. The restriction would stop after 30 days unless the person requests to be kept on the list longer.

    Bill floor sponsor Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a doctor by trade, said he’s been “shocked” by the increase in depression and anxiety cases he’s seen in his office “down to young children,” largely due to COVID-19.

    Initiatives changes

    HB136 putting regulations on gathering signatures for voter initiatives and referendums got its final concurrent passage in the House after being amended in the Senate on Thursday. The bill will require initiative sponsors to provide a paper or electronic copy of their referendum to signers and also give them the ability to remove their signature. It will require paid signature gatherers who go door to door to wear a badge identifying that they are paid.

    This story will be updated.

    Contributing:Katie McKellar, Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen, Marjorie Cortez

  • Yes, ‘Hamilton’ is still coming to Utah this year (for now). Here are the latest updates
    Opening night of the musical “Hamilton” at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. “Hamilton” returns to the Eccles Theater on Dec. 28, 2021 and will run through Jan. 23, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    The Eccles Theater has announced new dates for “Hamilton” as well as the addition of the Broadway smash hit “Hadestown.” Here are the latest updates

    As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout moves forward in Utah, entertainment venues and concert halls are starting to reopen.

    Four major arts venues in Salt Lake County recently announced they will be reopening to the public in March, and on Friday, the Eccles Theater announced its revised Broadway schedule — don’t worry, “Hamilton” is still on the calendar.

    Here’s a rundown of some of the big shows taking place in Utah this year.

    Note:This list is not all-inclusive and will be updated as new information comes in. Venues can send information about upcoming shows to

    Eccles Theater

    In a news release sent to the Deseret News on Friday, the Eccles Theater announced that its Broadway at the Eccles season will no longer include “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations.” Instead, “Hadestown” — which won eight Tony Awards in 2019, including for best musical — will round out the 2021-22 season lineup.

    “Ain’t Too Proud” will instead be part of the theater’s 2022-23 season. Current subscribers’ tickets will be moved to the new corresponding dates of “Hadestown,” according to the release.

    Season tickets for the 2021-22 season are currently sold out, but group tickets of 10 or more are available for all shows except “Hamilton” and “Hadestown,” according to the release. Single tickets for each show will go on sale at a later date.

    Below is the revised Broadway schedule for 2021-22:

    • Nov. 30 -Dec. 5 — “Mean Girls”
    • Dec. 28-Jan. 23, 2022 — “Hamilton
    • March 15-20, 2022 — “The Band’s Visit”
    • May 10-15, 2022 — “Jesus Christ Superstar”
    • June 14-19, 2022 — “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
    • Aug. 2-7, 2022 — “Hadestown”
    • Sept. 6-11, 2022 — “To Kill a Mockingbird

    Left over from the 2019-20 season:

    • Oct. 28-Nov. 14 — Disney’s “Frozen”
    • Feb. 15-20, 2022 — “Anastasia”

    Additional shows for the theater’s Live at the Eccles season:

    • April 24 — Bill Maher
    • May 27 — Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • July 24 — Joe Bonamassa
    • July 31 — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with special guest Lucinda Williams
    • Aug. 13 — Maks and Val live
    • Aug. 28 — #IMOMSOHARD
    • Nov. 17 — David Sedaris
    • Nov. 20 — Alton Brown: “Beyond the Eats”

    Vivint Arena

    • Feb. 26-March 7 — Disney on Ice presents “Dream Big”
    • March 20 — The National Parks
    • April 10 — Impractical Jokers
    • June 13 — Justin Bieber
    • June 26 — JoJo Siwa
    • Aug. 7 — Alan Jackson
    • Sept. 17 — Celine Dion
    • Sept. 24 — Luke Combs
    • Oct. 1 — Michael Buble
    • Oct. 23 — Dan + Shay
    • March 1, 2022 — The Weeknd

    Maverik Center

    • April 9-10 — RAIN: A tribute to the Beatles
    • April 25 — Jeff Dunham
    • May 20 — James Taylor
    • Oct. 2 — Gold Over America Tour starring Simone Biles

    USANA Amphitheatre

    • June 15 — An Evening with Chicago and their Greatest Hits
    • June 24 — Chris Stapleton
    • June 29 — Santana/Earth, Wind & Fire
    • July 10 — Lindsey Stirling
    • July 22 — Thomas Rhett
    • July 23 — Maroon 5
    • July 27 — Goo Goo Dolls
    • July 29 – Halsey
    • Aug. 5 — Backstreet Boys
    • Aug. 8 — Alanis Morrisette
    • Aug. 31 – Disturbed
    • Sept. 8 — Megadeth/Lamb of God
    • Sept. 18 — Matchbox Twenty
    • Sept. 22 — Kiss
    • Sept. 29 — The Doobie Brothers

    Kingsbury Hall

    • June 4 — Ryan Hamilton

    Abravanel Hall

    • May 15 — Nathan Pacheco

    (See the Utah Symphony’s upcoming schedule at Abravanel Hall.)

    Tuacahn Amphitheatre

    • March 12 — Zeppelin USA: An American Tribute to Led Zeppelin
    • March 13 — Brody Dolyniuk presents Elton John’s greatest hits
    • March 19 — Bill Engvall
    • March 20 — Free Fallin: A Tribute to Tom Petty
    • March 26 — Colbie Caillat
    • March 27 — Starship featuring Mickey Thomas
    • April 9 — The Carpenters tribute
    • April 10 — Scotty McCreery
    • April 16 — Marie Osmond
    • April 17 — The Oak Ridge Boys
    • Oct. 26-30 — Thriller
    • Nov. 6 — Kristin Chenoweth
    • Nov. 12 — Ryan Hamilton
    • Nov. 13 — Gentri

    Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival

    • July 2 — Patriotic Pops featuring Capathia Jenkins
    • July 9 — Kool & The Gang
    • July 10 — The Temptations
    • July 16 — Super Diamond
    • July 17 — Kristin Chenoweth
    • July 23 — The Magical Music of Harry Potter
    • July 24 — Take Me Home: The Music of John Denver starring Jim Curry
    • July 30 — Little River Band
    • July 31 — 1812 Overture with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
    • Aug. 7 — The Beach Boys

    Commonwealth Room

    • David Crosby and the Sky Trials Band
  • Keep wearing masks even as COVID-19 restrictions ease, doctor says
    Registered nurse Mary Daily prepares to administer the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Intermountain Healthcare’s The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray on Thursday, March 4, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Marks are still key to protecting Utahns against COVID-19 even as some restrictions are being relaxed in Salt Lake and other counties, an infectious diseases physician with the region’s largest health care provider said Friday.

    “Mask wearing, as much as we’re all tired of it, has been a very important tool,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said during a virtual news conference. “We’ve got a number of layers which, when all implemented together, have proven to be successful at decreasing transmission.”

    Besides masks, those include avoiding poorly ventilated areas and social distancing from others when possible.

    Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox announced that Salt Lake, Davis and several other counties have moved from high to moderatetransmission risk levels, a state designation that allows masked attendees at concerts, sporting events and other public gatherings to sit side by side.

    A statewide mask mandate remains in place for all of Utah’s 29 counties. However, as vaccinations ramp up nationwide, Texas and a number of other states are already lifting mask mandates and other measures intended to protect residents against the spread of COVID-19.

    Public health officials, including state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, have said dropping restrictions “seemingly too early” puts all Americans at risk because the virus does not respect geographic boundaries and could encourage the spread of new, more deadly variants.

    Webb said Utah’s shift in transmission risk levels, based on case counts, positive test rates and hospitalizations, represents “an intentional approach” to reopening the state.

    “That’s the wisest course of action right now, is to do an incremental staged reopening as less and less people in the community are susceptible,” he said.

    But the doctor said enough Utahns haven’t developed immunity to the coronavirus, either through vaccination or contracting the disease, “to give the green light on easing up on some of those restrictions.” He said Utahns should keep in mind their own circumstances even when additional activities are permitted.

    “As we continue to have less restrictions during this staged reopening, I think an important piece of advice is, ‘Be wise. Be careful about your environment. Know your own risk,’” Webb said. “Remember that when one layer is not possible, you’re taking precautions with a different layer.”

    That means Utahns who are someplace where they can’t distance themselves from others should wear a mask, the doctor said, while those eating in a restaurant or someplace else where they wouldn’t be wearing a mask should stay at least 6 feet away from others.

    Even after getting vaccinated, Webb suggested Utahns should take their own health into consideration before ditching masks and other precautions around friends and family members outside their households.

    “If you’ve been vaccinated, you’re healthy, your immune system works,” the doctor said, “Then yes, I think making some intentional decisions about the risks that you have been being very careful about to date, then being around those you love is absolutely appropriate.”

    Others, however, are only able to get the vaccine now because they are at high risk for contracting coronavirus due to their age or chronic medical issues, and for them, that might not be the case, Webb said.

    “It’s less likely that the vaccine will be fully effective in some individuals. So it’s a person-by-person decision,” Webb said. “Not everyone should view the vaccine as a ticket to full freedom yet while we still have community transmission.”

    The governor added Utahns 50 and older as well as those with additional medical conditions to the state’s vaccine eligibility list starting Monday. The new medical conditions are obesity with a body mass index of 30 or higher, down from the limit of 40 or higher, as well as chronic kidney disease and Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

    Those now able to be vaccinated include Utahs with a longer list of specified medical conditions, along with Utahns 65 and older, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, and K-12 teachers and school staff.

    Webb noted it is possible to get COVID-19 after the first of the two shots needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Only the latest vaccine approved for use in the United States, from Johnson & Johnson, is fully effective after a single dose.

    “When that happens, typically the symptoms are more mild,” Webb said, adding Utahns who do contract the virus between the first and second shots of the two-dose vaccines need to wait to get their booster shot until they’re over their symptoms and beyond the recommended 10-day isolation period.

    All of the vaccines now available, he said, “are very good.” But Webb said although immunizations are the most important development in the battle against the coronavirus, other tools must continue to be employed at least through the spring and early summer.

    “We need to stay the course and get all the way to the finish line by continuing to follow the social restrictions and the other layers of protection until our case counts and our numbers of vaccinated individuals are at a point where we again can safely pass the baton from those things we’re all tired of, to immunity,” he said.

    Utah reports 549 new coronavirus cases and five additional deaths

    The Utah Department of Health reported 549 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, along with five additional deaths from the virus. There’s been a total of 373,868 positive coronavirus cases in the state since the pandemic began a year ago.

    Nearly 817,000 Utahns have received at least one dose of vaccine, a daily increase of 31,411.

    The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 543 per day, and 6.601 Utahns have been tested and another 16,934 tests for the virus conducted since Thursday. The rolling seven-day average for the percent of positive tests is 4.6% when all tests are counted, and 9.8% when multiple tests by an individual within 90 days are excluded.

    Currently, 203 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah.

    The state’s death toll is at 1,970, with the five new deaths reported Friday. Those deaths, which include one that occurred before Feb. 12, are:

    • A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at the time of death.

    • A Cache County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

    • A Utah County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

    • A Cache County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

    • A Weber County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

  • California triple murder suspect arrested in Utah claims he ‘wasn’t thinking,’ warrant says
    A man suspected in a triple killing in California who was arrested by Utah Highway Patrol troopers told a witness, “I did something” and “I wasn’t thinking,” according to a search warrant. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    TOOELE — As a 19-year-old man wanted for a triple homicide sits in the Tooele County Jail awaiting extradition back to California, new details of the horrific crime have been revealed in Utah court documents.

    Mauricio Eduardo Sanchez-Johnson, 19, of Loleta, California, is wanted in Humboldt County, California, in connection with the deaths of a mother, stepfather and 16-year-old girl on the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria Reservation.

    Nikki Dion Metcalf and Margarett Lee Moon, both 40, and Shelly Autumn Mae Moon, 16, were all shot to death on Feb. 10.

    Tooele County Jail
    Mauricio Eduardo Sanchez-Johnson, 19, of Loleta, California, is wanted in connection with a triple killing in northern California. He was arrested shortly after the shootings in Tooele County.

    After the killings, investigators received information that Johnson had fled the state with others and they were traveling in two vehicles through Utah, according to the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office.

    The Utah Highway Patrol was notified and had troopers on the lookout for the vehicles while placing the Department of Public Safety helicopter and its Special Emergency Response Team on standby.

    The vehicles were spotted on I-80 in Tooele County on Feb. 11 but refused to pull over for troopers, according to the UHP. Troopers, along with Tooele County sheriff’s deputies, spiked the tires of one of the fleeing SUVs and detained two men and a woman, including Johnson.

    Johnson was traveling with his mother, Melissa Sanchez Johnson, and her friend, Von Keener, according to the North Coast Journal. Keener was taken into custody by Utah authorities on outstanding warrants.

    According to a search warrant affidavit served on the vehicles by the Utah State Bureau of Investigations, two two-way radios, five cellphones and two computers were seized.

    “It is believed the vehicles were communicating with the two-way radios, and using the (police) scanner to avoid law enforcement,” according to the warrant.

    It also outlined more details about the shootings in California based on information received from authorities there.

    The affidavit states that several young people were at the residence where the shootings occurred starting the night of Feb. 9 and were drinking alcohol. During the early hours of the next morning, Metcalf found out what was happening and became upset. She then found Johnson alone in a room with Shelly, the affidavit states.

    After the shootings, Johnson went to a relative’s house and “was in a panic,” witnesses told police, according to the warrant.

    “Mauricio Johnson was in possession of a pistol and had blood on his clothes. Mauricio Johnson stated he had shot someone and later clarified that he shot multiple people. Mauricio Johnson then changed his clothes,” the warrant states.

    Another witness stated that “Mauricio was crying and saying, ‘I did something’ and ‘I wasn’t thinking.’ (The witness) stated he was having a hard time making sentences.... Mauricio Johnson kept apologizing,” according to the affidavit.

    A witness further told police Johnson stated he was with a girl — later determined to be Shelly — “when the girl’s stepdad walked in. The stepfather started ‘getting tough’ with Mauricio Johnson so Mauricio Johnson pulled out his gun and shot him. The girl’s mother walked into the room and Mauricio Johnson shot her. Mauricio Johnson then shot the girl because he did not want to have any witnesses,” the affidavit states.

    California authorities soon after were able to track the SUV owned by Johnson’s mother and learned that it was heading east on I-80.

  • Coronavirus: Utah responds to the pandemic

    Utah has seen 373,868 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 1,970 total deaths as of Friday, according to the Utah Department of Health. That’s an increase of 549 cases from Thursday. Five additional deaths were reported, with one of the deaths occurring before Feb. 12.

    Here are the latest numbers.

    • Total number of COVID-19 cases: 373,868
    • Total reported people tested: 2,236,642
    • Vaccines administered: 816,934
    • Total COVID-19 hospitalizations: 14,841
    • Current COVID-19 hospitalizations: 203
    • Total COVID-19 deaths: 1,970
    • Single-day high for reported cases: 4,672 (Dec. 31)
    • Single-day high for reported deaths: 30 (Dec. 17 and Jan. 21)


    • All Utahns 50 and older, as well as those with some less severe medical conditions, will be able to start scheduling COVID-19 vaccination shots Monday, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday, adding everyone should be eligible by April.
    • Utah continues a stepped-up vaccination effort that includes hiring four more companies to help administer doses.
    • The Salt Lake County Health Department launched a new $1 million campaign Tuesday to encourage residents to take their “shot” against COVID-19.
    • With Utah expecting a big increase COVID-19 vaccine doses, more options were announced Monday for residents who meet the state eligibility requirements to sign up for shots.
    • One year ago Sunday, Utah received its first patient with COVID-19.

    “I had no idea we’d still be doing this a year later,” Mark Jorgensen said, adding that he initially expected the novel SARS-CoV-2 strain would act “more like another swine flu or bird flu.”

    • While another nearly 20,000 Utahns received doses of the COVID-19 vaccine Friday, an error in the registration process at Vaccinate.Utah.Gov is causing a hiccup in the process.


    Globally, the novel coronavirus pandemic has now infected 115,289,961 and killed 2,564,560 people as of Friday, according to the World Health Organization.

    Read more of our coronavirus coverage.

  • Repeal of Utah’s year-old bail reform now on governor’s desk
    Crystal Powell, with the Utah Crime Victim Legal Clinic, left, discusses a legislative effort to repeal last year’s bail reform during a press conference at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 1, 2021. County attorneys and public defenders from Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties denounced what they called a “bad faith” proposal to undo the law now keeping suspects in jail based mainly on the risk they pose and not whether they can afford bail. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — A measure to repeal last year’s bail reform is awaiting final approval from Gov. Spencer Cox after passing the Utah Legislature.

    The reform, pitched as a change to hold suspects based on the risks they pose and not their ability to afford bail, passed the 2020 Legislature with broad support and took effect in October.

    The Utah Sheriffs Association and law enforcers in rural counties have contended the changes allowed for some dangerous offenders to be released, a claim the law’s supporters reject. Prosecutors and defense attorneys along the Wasatch Front have said it’s working in their counties.

    The repeal bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy, told colleagues Wednesday that more populous counties have pretrial programs that have helped roll out the changes and keep track of offenders, but other counties don’t.

    “People are being held that should not be held,” he said. “People are being released that should not be released.”

    Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, rejected the notion during the debate on HB220.

    “The most dangerous people are being held without bail,” he said, describing the old system as unjust and “not defensible.”

    The Senate voted 20-8 Wednesday in favor of repeal, with some senators expressing misgivings but ultimately voting to undo last year’s law.

    Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who brought a competing bill to tweak last year’s reform, told colleagues the repeal measure “creates a tremendous amount of confusion” and conflicts with portions of law predating last year’s changes.

    Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said it was difficult to evaluate opposing arguments from Cullimore and Weiler, who are both attorneys. Anderegg said he was primarily concerned about fairness, and while the reform effort appeared to make the system more just, he was torn by “aspects of what is happening throughout the state.”

  • Unified officer was not justified in shooting, killing Salt Lake man, D.A. concludes
    A police vehicle is pictured at the scene of a police shooting in Taylorsville on March 21, 2020. On Friday, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office concluded that a Unified police officer was not legally justified when he shot and killed an unarmed man. But no criminal charges will be filed against the officer. | Sean Moody, Deseret News

    But Sim Gill says no criminal charges will be filed against Unified police officer

    TAYLORSVILLE — A Unified police officer who killed an unarmed man, shooting him six times, was not legally justified in using that deadly force.

    That conclusion was announced Friday by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. But District Attorney Sim Gill said he will not pursue any criminal charges against United police officer Omar Flores.

    “We don’t believe a jury would convict officer Flores of murder or another criminal charge,” Gill said.

    The officer said the man disobeyed orders, the man’s hands were moving by his waist and he feared for his life and the life of his partner when he shot him.

    Gill released a 24-page decision on Friday, going into great detail about why Flores was mistaken in his reasons for using deadly force, even though he feared for his life. He called it a “challenging case” to review.

    On March 21, emergency dispatchers received calls from citizens who heard gunshots in the area of 6200 S. Bangerter Highway followed by a car speeding away. Four officers responded to the call.

    While searching the area, the officers came across a car in a park. As officers approached to question the driver, the vehicle began to drive away. When police turned on their emergency lights, the vehicle ran a stop sign and sped away, according to the district attorney’s report.

    The vehicle crashed a short distance away, near 6300 South and 3200 West, and the driver got out and ran, the report states. Flores spotted the fleeing man, Bryan Ulysses Pena-Valencia, 28, of Salt Lake City, who was climbing a fence to run through a backyard, according to the report.

    Flores followed, and investigators believe that while scaling the fence, Flores’ body camera was knocked off of his uniform, the report states. Because of that, there is no body camera footage of the shooting.

    When Flores confronted Pena-Valencia in the backyard, he twice used his Taser after ordering him to stop, but the Taser had no effect. Pena-Valencia told the officer, “OK, OK, I give up,” but still tried to climb a second fence to get away, the report states.

    “The man stood, facing officer Flores and was ‘motioning toward his waistband.’ Officer Flores again told the man to get on the ground, but the man did not comply,” according to the report.

    Pena-Valencia then took something from the pocket of his hoodie and threw it over the fence. It was later determined to be his wallet.

    A second officer arrived on scene and both he and Flores stood at a 90-degree angle to confront the man. Pena-Valencia continued to disobey orders to show his hands or get on the ground, “and instead swayed side to side while staring at officer Flores,” according to the report.

    At one point, Pena-Valencia quickly moved his head, switching his focus from Flores to his partner. Flores said Pena-Valencia’s “eyes were wide” and he “immediately felt an overwhelming fear for my partner’s life and my own,” the report states.

    “Officer Flores said he yelled as loud as he could: ‘Show me your hands or you will be shot!’ Officer Flores said the man ‘shifted his eyes and attention back on (him),’” according to the report. “Officer Flores said the man ‘did not comply and quickly moved both of his hands down toward the left side of this waist.’

    “I thought or believed he was reaching for a firearm and I would be shot. I feared my partner would be shot,” Flores told investigators in a written statement.

    “The suspect remained standing. The suspect’s hands were near the middle of his body, slightly moving down,” the officer repeated in his statement. “I felt as if the suspect was either concealing and/or taking a defensive position by moving to his side the way he did and based off his mannerisms. I felt as though the suspect was trying to manipulate me and catch me off guard by being verbally compliant in saying, ‘OK. I give up.’”

    The other officer with Flores, when interviewed for the investigation, said Pena-Valencia had “like a thousand-yard stare.”

    “(The officer) said it seemed like the man was looking ‘through” him. (He) said he had seen that look before, sometimes in people with mental health and intoxication issues,” according to the report.

    The officer stated that it appeared Pena-Valencia was going through a “thought process,” that he was “super defensive” and that “it looked like the man was making a decision.” He concurred that Pena-Valencia was “very evasive with his hands,” which “weren’t up, they weren’t out, they were very close to his proximity, his torso, his chest,” the report states.

    An autopsy determined that Pena-Valencia was shot six times and that his “arms were down and to the side of his body and not raised when he was shot.”

    In determining that the shooting was not justified, Gill, in his report, said that even though Flores believed his life was in danger, “he was nevertheless factually, objectively wrong about the necessity for him to use deadly force. Mr. Valencia did not and could not have threatened officer Flores or (the other officer) with death or serious bodily injury because Mr. Valencia did not have the means to do so. Mr. Valencia did not have a gun and could not have shot either officer.”

    Gill said this case is different from other police shootings where a suspect is not armed but still gives an impression that he might be armed by pointing a facsimile of a gun — or another object — at officers, or when a suspect keeps his hands hidden in his pockets, or when a suspect appears to pull something out of his waistband, or when a witness directly tells officers that a suspect is believed to have a gun.

    “In such instances, the officer’s mistaken belief about the subject was nevertheless a reasonable mistake because the circumstances supported reasonable inferences such that an objective, reasonable officer would make the same mistake,” the report states.

    But without a set of facts to make reasonable inferences, Gill said an officer may not be justified in shooting someone.

    “In this instance, officer Flores cannot — or at least did not — point to a reason why he thought Mr. Valencia had a gun,” according to the report.

    Flores did not say he saw a gun or part of a gun or items associated with a gun like a holster, the report says. Furthermore, Pena-Valencia never stated he had a gun.

    “Indeed, when he was shot, Mr. Valencia didn’t even make a drawing motion or act like he was drawing a gun or a weapon from his waistband,” the report states.

    Gill said that while Flores feared Pena-Valencia was reaching for a gun, he was not drawing or producing a gun.

    “Although officer Flores articulated the totality of the circumstances that combined to cause him to believe that Mr. Valencia’s actions were intended and designed to do one thing — produce a gun — we’re not persuaded that these circumstances were sufficient to make officer Flores’ belief reasonable. Therefore, we cannot conclude officer Flores’ use of deadly force was justified,” according to the report.

    There was no evidence that Pena-Valencia was the person involved in the original call they were investigating of shots being fired or that the man had a gun while running from police, the report states.

    Gill said in the report that there is also no evidence to suggest that Flores acted with criminal intent. On the contrary, the officer subjectively believed his life and the life of his partner were in danger.

    Gill further stated that police officers have a heavy burden to use deadly force both appropriately and only when “absolutely necessary.”

    “We do not suggest an officer must actually be threatened with death or serious bodily injury before the officer’s use of deadly force will be deemed reasonable. But if an officer uses deadly force before he or she is actually threatened with death or serious bodily injury, and it turns out the subject wasn’t capable of actually threatening death or serious bodily injury and the officer was mistaken about the need to use deadly force, then our determination of whether the mistake was reasonable will turn on the objective facts supported by evidence upon which inferences were based, or the lack of facts from which unsupported inferences were unreasonably drawn.”

    After Gill’s decision was released, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera issued a statement saying that Flores has been placed on administrative leave and an internal affairs investigation is being conducted.

    “In the published findings, the D.A. acknowledged that law enforcement confronts very real dangers and officers are expected to be able to anticipate a threat of death or serious bodily injury. I have faith that our UPD officers take this responsibility seriously and understand that review and investigation of the use of deadly force is a critical part of this responsibility,” Rivera said.

    “Every use of deadly force incident provides us the opportunity to review and adapt our policies, procedures and training so that we can remain accountable to the public we serve.”