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Utah Legal Clinic v. Salt Lake City Corp.

Court of Appeals of Utah

April 11, 2019

Utah Legal Clinic, Appellant,
v.
Salt Lake City Corporation and State Records Committee of the State of Utah, Appellees.

          Third District Court, West Jordan Department The Honorable James D. Gardner No. 160905336

          Angela H. Elmore, Attorney for Appellant

          Catherine L. Brabson and Margaret D. Plane, Attorneys for Appellee Salt Lake City Corporation

          Judges Gregory K. Orme and David N. Mortensen concurred.

          OPINION

          DIANA HAGEN JUDGE.

         ¶1 Utah Legal Clinic (ULC) appeals the denial of its petition to set aside the final decision and order of the State Records Committee (the Committee) denying ULC's appeal from a records request under the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). See Utah Code Ann. §§ 63G-2-101 to -901 (LexisNexis 2016).[1] In the GRAMA request at issue, ULC requested that Salt Lake City Corporation (the City) disclose all records from the City Prosecutor's Office relating to the criminal prosecution of a ULC client. In response to the request, the City declined to turn over certain records it determined to be protected attorney-client communications and attorney work product. See id. § 63G-2-305(17)-(18) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018). On review, the district court balanced ULC's stated public interest in exposing misconduct by the chief city prosecutor in its client's criminal case with the City's interest in protecting prosecutor communications relating to threatened litigation and the exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Because the district court correctly determined that the public interest in favor of disclosing the records was not equal to or greater than the City's interest in nondisclosure, we affirm its denial of ULC's petition to set aside the Committee's final decision and order.

         BACKGROUND

         Criminal Charges

         ¶2 In July 2013, Trenton Mellen was pulled over by a Salt Lake City police officer after failing to stop or yield at a stop sign. Based on the officer's observations and Mellen's performance on a field sobriety test, Mellen was arrested and charged by the City with driving under the influence, driving with an expired driver license, and failure to stop or yield at a stop sign. Mellen was subjected to a blood test, which revealed that he had low levels of Trazodone, an anti-depressant and sleep aid, in his system at the time of his arrest. After he received the report, Mellen provided letters to the City from two of his doctors, in which the doctors explained that Mellen took therapeutic levels of Trazodone to treat a medical condition and that they did not believe he ever abused the drug. Neither letter expressly stated that the drug did not impair Mellen's driving.

         ¶3 In April 2014, after learning from the toxicologist that the level of Trazodone in Mellen's blood was therapeutic but could still impair his driving, the City offered to dismiss the driving under the influence charge if Mellen would plead guilty to being an incapable driver and failure to stop at a stop sign. In an email to the City, Mellen's attorney characterized the offer as "offensive" and stated that she and Mellen intended to "fight this as long as we have to in order to get the desired result." Mellen filed a motion to suppress the results of his blood test and in July 2014, the justice court granted Mellen's suppression motion, determining after an evidentiary hearing that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest him. Pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-7-118, which entitles prosecutors to a hearing de novo on a "pretrial order excluding evidence," the City appealed this ruling to the district court. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-7-118(5)(f) (LexisNexis 2018). After the de novo hearing, the district court determined that the officer had probable cause to arrest Mellen and remanded the case back to the justice court. See id. § 78A-7-118(6).

         ¶4 Following the remand, trial was set for April 2015. Two weeks before the trial date, Mellen provided the City with notice that an expert would testify that the Trazodone "did not influence or impair [Mellen's] driving." The City dismissed Mellen's charges without prejudice before trial.

         Civil Lawsuit

         ¶5 Throughout the proceedings, Mellen maintained that he was not guilty of driving under the influence and had only performed poorly during the field sobriety test due to a prior brain injury. During the traffic stop, Mellen told the officer that he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Both Mellen's mother and his uncle also spoke to the officer before Mellen's arrest and confirmed that Mellen had some physical disabilities, but that he had driven without incident since he was old enough to drive.

         ¶6 Mellen's uncle later contacted the Salt Lake City Council, expressing general concern about the way the City was handling Mellen's case and specific concern about the policies of the chief city prosecutor at that time-Padma Veeru-Collings. Mellen's mother also contacted the Salt Lake City Council by email and expressed similar concerns. She concluded her email to the city council by stating that "it ha[d] come to [her] attention that there is a potential class action suit by and for the disabled and [a local newspaper was] planning an article on [Veeru-Collings]" and that she "would like to see this avoided." In August 2014, while the issue of probable cause was pending in the district court, a local newspaper did publish an article that included information about Mellen's case. The article criticized Veeru-Collings's management of Salt Lake City prosecutors and their continued pursuit of charges against Mellen. Alleging prosecutorial conduct in ...


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