The Garfield County sheriff says the deputy who arrested a woman for allegedly stomping on a pro-police sign was "singled out and attacked" simply for being a law enforcement officer.
Sheriff James D. Perkins issued a prepared statement Wednesday — five days after the arrest of a 19-year-old California woman who was later charged with a hate crime by Garfield County prosecutors was reported.
The statement comes after the incident involving Lauren Gibson received local and national attention in articles by the Washington Post and the Daily Beast, and prompted a response by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said Utah's hate crimes statute was not intended for situations like Gibson's arrest.
On July 7, Gibson was in one of three vehicles traveling together through Panguitch. The vehicles were pulled over for going 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, according to Perkins’ statement posted on Facebook Wednesday. Despite speeding and despite having tobacco products in the car and being underage, the sheriff said the drivers were not issued any citations. But the Daily Beast said Gibson told them that her friend did receive a speeding ticket.
After the traffic stop was completed, Perkins said several occupants from the vehicles "left the area" and "soon returned with an alleged stolen 'Back the Blue' sign." The deputy's booking affidavit does not say the group left and came back, but says: "As I concluded my traffic stop and released the individuals, I observed some of the individual's friends approach them and attempt to console them."
The deputy's report says Gibson stomped on the sign and then crumpled it up "in a destructive manner" and threw it in a trash can "all while smirking in an intimidating manner towards me."
Perkins' statement Wednesday said Gibson "showed extremely aggressive and violent behavior" toward the deputy in "a very busy parking lot."
"Ms. Gibson caused a public disturbance and purposely targeted the officer in a very unpeaceful manner," the sheriff said. "The simple fact is, while this officer was doing his duty in a proactive and compassionate manner, he was singled out and attacked by this person because he was a law enforcement officer."
Perkins added that his office is "greatly disturbed by the hatred shown to law enforcement officers for no apparent reason."
The deputy further noted that he arrested Gibson and booked her into jail "due to Gibson destroying property that did not belong to her in a manner to attempt to intimidate law enforcement." He suggested the case be "treated as a hate crime enhanced allegation" because of the "demeanor displayed by Gibson in attempts to intimidate law enforcement while destroying a pro law enforcement sign."
Two days later, the Garfield County Attorney's Office charged Gibson in 6th District Court with criminal mischief. The charge was filed with a hate crime enhancement, making it a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. The woman was also charged with disorderly conduct, an infraction.
On Monday, the ACLU of Utah issued a statement saying it is "extremely troubled and disappointed" with the criminal charge.
"This kind of charging decision sends an extremely chilling message to the community that the government will seek harsher punishment for people charged with crimes who disagree with police actions. This concern is even greater because we do not view the enhancement as supportable under the language of the statute," the ACLU said.
"Bringing a charge against this person that could result in her spending a year in jail makes no sense both in terms of simple fairness and expending the county's time and money."
According to the charging documents, the criminal mischief charge with a hate crime enhancement was filed because the woman damaged or destroyed the sign "with the intent to intimidate or terrorize another person or with reason to believe that her action would intimidate or terrorize that person."
Utah's hate crime statute for civil rights states: "'Intimidate or terrorize' means an act which causes the person to fear for his physical safety or damages the property of that person or another. The act must be accompanied with the intent to cause or has the effect of causing a person to reasonably fear to freely exercise or enjoy any right secured by the Constitution or laws of the state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States."
Gibson told the Daily Beast that she does not believe her actions rose to the level of a hate crime.
"I don't feel like I did anything wrong," she said.
Gibson also said the arresting deputy made reference to a previous similar Garfield County case that was also charged as a hate crime.
"He told me, 'Do you want to know what happened to the last person that got arrested for this?'" she said. "He was kind of threatening me in that way."
In 2020, Joseph Taft Dawson, 32, was arrested after he took a "Back the Blue" sign at a gas station and spray painted the word "bisexual" over the word "blue." Dawson was charged and later convicted of criminal mischief with a hate crime enhancement, a class A misdemeanor. He served two days in jail.
As of Wednesday, no court date has been set for Gibson.