SALT LAKE CITY — It was a shocking experience for Dena Long-Christensen, sitting in a cell in the Salt Lake County Jail for nearly two weeks among people charged with serious crimes.
Her cellmate, for example, was spending time on charges of aggravated assault. Long-Christensen's crime? Selling flower baskets from her home.
"Instead of being further in shock, it was like, there's something wrong with our country," said the West Jordan woman.
Long-Christensen, 44, was sent to jail by a justice of West Jordan's Municipal Court after a dispute over whether she had the proper permits under zoning law to operate her small nursery business out of her home.
A four-month investigation by KSL-TV discovered Long-Christensen's case is but one of several examples of questionable activities inside city-run justice courts, which operate outside the purview of the state's judiciary. Critics of the justice courts cite examples of judges issuing random rulings, sidestepping normal rules of jurisprudence and sometimes doling out harsh punishment for relatively minor infractions.
Kent Hart, Executive Director, Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
"Unfortunately, the ‘wild, wild West' is alive and well in justice courts," said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Hart is one of a number of criminal defense attorneys KSL News spoke with, however, most would not speak on the record for fear of retribution from municipal court judges.
The courts operate with virtually no oversight beyond that of the sponsoring cities, which rely on the courts as municipal cash cows, generating millions of dollars in fines and fees every year.
Kimberly Beazer's case is one example. She believes the court tried to coerce her into pleading guilty and paying a $200 fine instead of getting her day in court.