ST. GEORGE – Because of Utah’s drug-free zone laws, the location of a drug crime can add to a drug offender’s charges and significantly increase penalties. Moreover, these zones cover so much territory in Utah, one might be better off trying to identify the areas in the state that aren’t considered drug-free.
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When you hear the term “drug-free zone,” you might be inclined to think: “Well, aren’t all areas considered drug-free since drugs are illegal?”
Simply put, the drug-free zone is one of many laws that create extra penalties for already illegal acts. The penalties are harsher for any drug offense that takes place within the drug-free zone and charges are enhanced by one degree.
For example, a drug distribution charge, which would usually be a third-degree felony, turns into a second-degree felony, and a drug possession charge, which would usually be a class B misdemeanor, turns into a class A misdemeanor.
Where exactly are drug-free zones in Utah?
In Utah, according to Utah Code 58-37-8, Utah Controlled Substances Act – Prohibited acts – Penalties, these so-called drug-free zones are located within 1,000 feet of the following areas:
- Any school, public or private, of any level – from preschool to university
- Public parks, amusement parks, arcades or recreation centers
- Child-care facilities
- Houses of worship
- Shopping malls, sports facilities, stadiums, arenas, theaters, movie houses, playhouses or parking lots or structures adjacent thereto
- Portions of any building, park, stadium or other structure or grounds which are, at the time of the act, being used for an activity sponsored by or through a school or institution
- In the presence of a person younger than 18 years of age, regardless of where the act occurs
The statute’s requirement that the distance be measured in a straight line, regardless of obstructions, puts many areas under the law’s jurisdiction. Basically, any area in a city or town will likely qualify, and penalties are applied whether or not children are involved, and even if a school is out of session.
In September 2014, a Wyoming woman, reportedly driving from California to her home state, decided to take a rest stop in Washington City around 2:30 a.m. She parked her car in a parking lot located at 850 W. Telegraph Street and ended up being arrested on drug charges after police received a report of a suspicious vehicle in the area. Her charges were subsequently enhanced because of her proximity to the Paul Mitchell hair school, which had been closed for nearly seven hours by the time of her arrest.
On Jan. 17, a St. George woman was arrested on drug charges after being pulled over on St. George Boulevard. Her drug charges were enhanced because the traffic stop was initiated within 1,000 feet of the Red Rock Canyon School, located at 747 E. St. George Boulevard.
In Washington City, if a person is standing in the parking lot of the Washington City Community Center, located at 350 Community Center Drive, the drug-free zone overlaps at least seven times because of the proximity to the recreation center, a daycare center, the park, two sports facilities including a baseball field and soccer field, a school, a library and a church house.
Several studies have concluded that the 1,000-foot distance is the cause of the law’s failure to move drug dealers away from children, as was the law’s original purpose, and suggest reducing the zones. Many argue that by reducing the zones, it will make the law more meaningful.
To illustrate the problem, in 2006, the Utah Automated Geographic Reference Center plotted drug-free zones in St. George and found that the zones overlap and blanket the city.
Nine years later, the city has nearly doubled in size and drastically changed, significantly increasing the drug-free zones.
Penalties for drug possession offenses in Utah
The degree of a possession charge – punishable as a second- or third-degree felony or a class A or B misdemeanor – is dependent upon the type of controlled substance possessed, the amount possessed, whether the offender has previous convictions, and whether the offender carried a weapon or firearm during commission of the offense.
In Utah, the basic minimum punishment for drug possession, not committed in a drug-free zone, are as follows:
- A class B misdemeanor can result in imprisonment for up to six months and/or fines up to $1,000
- A class A misdemeanor can lead to imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine not exceeding $2,500
- A third-degree felony can lead to a prison sentence for up to five years and/or a fine not more than $5,000
- A second-degree felony can result in imprisonment for up to 15 years and/or a fine up to $10,000
Drug charge enhancements in a drug-free zone
When a drug offense conviction includes violation of the drug-free zoning, the maximum allowed fine for that crime is automatically imposed, and the longest term of imprisonment is increased.
Furthermore, drug-free zone sentences are not subject to parole, probation or suspension of sentence when violation of the associated felony crime is not subject to sentencing considerations.
A judge, upon conviction, is obligated to inflict a harsh penalty no matter what sentence he thinks the defendant deserves.
Not only in Utah
In all 50 states, selling, manufacturing and sometimes just possessing drugs within a specified distance of schools, parks or daycare centers may impose a higher punishment for drug offenders.
Drug-free zone laws are among the most longstanding sentencing policies in America’s “War on Drugs,” according to The Sentencing Project. In 1970, Congress passed an early version of a law increasing penalties for certain drug offenses committed near schools, and in the 1980s, many state governments began to do the same. Currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of drug-free school zone law.
Though the stated intent of drug-free zone laws was to protect schools, 31 states have extended the scope of their policies to areas beyond schools, according to the site, with the most expansive law in terms of covered locations being that of Arkansas.
In recent years, however, these drug-free zone laws have proved problematic and ineffective, according to The Sentencing Project, and have led at least seven states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Carolina, to reform their drug-free zone laws.
Some of those reforms included eliminating or reducing mandatory minimum sentence enhancements, lowering the geographical reach, and making the offenses tied to children actually being exposed to the drug offense.
Utah leading the way to a solution?
With federal prison populations rapidly increasing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in January 2014, to modernize drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of nonviolent offenses.
By focusing limited federal resources on the most serious offenders, these incremental changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment, according to Lee’s website.
The bill would not repeal mandatory minimum drug sentences, but reduce them, saving billions of dollars and reducing dangerous overcrowding in federal prisons.
If passed, the bill would reduce certain 20-year, 10-year and 5-year mandatory minimum drug sentences to 10, 5, and 2 years, respectively. The bill would not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences, nor would it change any mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes that result in death or serious bodily injury to any other person. It also does not change any sentences for violent or sex offenders.
The Smarter Sentencing bill was reported by the Senate Committee on March 11, 2014, but has yet to be enacted.
Videocast by St. George News videographer Leanna Bergeron.
- Utah Code 58-37-8, Utah Controlled Substances Act – Prohibited acts – Penalties
- Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014
- Criminal Justice Reinvestment Report
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