SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For more than six years, police outside Zion National Park pushed foreign tourists to pay traffic and parking tickets in cash — even following them to an ATM to demand on-the-spot payments.
The practice brought felony misappropriation charges against Springdale Town Manager Richard Wixom and his police chief, Kurt Wright, but a judge acquitted both men Wednesday, even as he scolded town officials for the practice, according to an online court docket.
Fifth District Court Judge Wallace Lee said he couldn't hold either official for failing to forward ticket money to the state court system. The money was kept in a town account, although state auditors who exposed the practice a year ago said they couldn't trace any cash that might have been collected for at least 138 tickets.
Several questions lingered Wednesday as the case was thrown out: How did the cash-for-tickets scandal start? Did police or anyone else personally profit? Who was responsible for depositing the money in a judicial account?
Lee said everyone in Springdale town government failed to ensure the law was followed. However, he said, nothing in state law addressed the responsibility.
"The court finds the policy of having officers collect bail on the street is a bad policy," said Lee, according to docket notes of the proceeding in St. George, 270 miles south of Salt Lake City. "But the bail collection policy is not before the court today."
Lee said he couldn't hold Wixom responsible "any more than the others at the Town of Springdale. Everyone made a mistake in this case."
"There is nothing that says the city manager must make sure the funds are properly paid to the court," said the judge, who acquitted the men before trial, ruling that state prosecutors failed their burden of proof.
The state investigation was sparked by complaints from a Spanish tourist who was "pulled over and told she had to pay on-the-spot" for a 2011 traffic violation, former Utah State Auditor Auston G. Johnson told The Associated Press. "She didn't ask what would happen if she didn't pay the fine. She just paid it."
Town officials have said it's all but impossible to collect fines from tourists after they return to their homelands. They dropped the practice after Johnson's audit.
Wright has insisted his officers always gave tourists the option of paying fines by mail. He said he believed his department had authority to collect on-the-spot cash from willing motorists who were happy to avoid the hassle of dealing with a ticket later.
Testimony Wednesday showed Springdale collected about $10,000 a year in ticket cash from foreigners from 2006 to 2011.