Diana Schaffer didn’t know how to answer her children’s questions about gay people in the wake of Proposition 8’s passage, so she took them to meet some of her gay friends at a rally being held around Temple Square.
She didn’t expect two things: that the marchers would number in the thousands, or that events at the rally would embroil her in an 18-month legal battle involving the question of whether or not she hit and injured a Salt Lake City parking enforcement officer as she was backing her truck out to leave the rally.
“I wanted to give my kids a civics lesson, but I didn’t intend for it to be the civics lesson we got,” she said.
During the rally, Schaffer’s son, who suffers from chronic health problems, complained of a stomach ache, so Schaffer decided to take her family home. As she approached her car, however, she said she noticed something unusual: a parking enforcement officer — better known as a “meter maid” — arguing with a lesbian who had parked straddling a sidewalk. The woman — who Schaffer said she later learned was being insulted by the PEO who insisted upon calling her “sir” — was shouting for a police officer. When a dozen motorcycled officers road past without stopping, Schaffer said she approached the PEO and asked her badge number.
“I wanted to complain to the city [that] there’s this person out here screaming for police and no one was responding,” she said.
But Schaffer said she found herself in the middle of the altercation as she got her children into her bulky truck, which she had inadvertently parked in a no parking zone. She said she asked the PEO, named Gail Cameron, and Ashley Holingshead, PEO in training who had shown up on the scene, to move so she could pull out. As she did, Schaffer said the two banged on her car shouting, “You almost hit us!”
Rattled by the experience, Schaffer drove home, where she said an officer soon showed up and arrested her.
“He asked me what my name was and he put handcuffs on me when I stepped out of the door,” she said. “My little girl was outside trying to explain I didn’t do anything.”
Schaffer was charged with two counts of aggravated assault (3rd degree felonies) and one count of criminal mischief (a class B misdemeanor). As the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Watch Command log for Nov. 7 reads:
“Parking Enforcement Officers were conducting their duties in the area. They cited the vehicle belonging to the Diana Schaffer …, who upon discovering the ticket and becoming argumentative attempted to run over the two officers. Her vehicle struck both victims slightly and broke the driver’s side mirror off the parking enforcement vehicle.”
Schaffer, however, denied the charges and refused to take a plea bargain. In April, she was found not guilty on all counts.
Schaffer said she is going public with her story now because she doesn’t think enough evidence existed to bring her to trial. Further, she said that police and the office of Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller acted unethically in handling her case from evidence-gathering to the trial itself.
“It’s kind of an LGBT issue but it’s bigger than that. It’s an ‘everyone who lives in Salt Lake City who happens to be middle class [issue],’” she said. “It takes a lot of gumption to do what I did [in not accepting a plea]. I knew they’d accused me of something that was physically impossible. Their own expert agreed that what [they said] I’d done was physically impossible, and they still took me to trial.”
The “physically impossible” move to which Schaffer refers involves the angle at which her truck supposedly hit the driver’s side mirror on the PEO’s vehicle. Schaffer said that evidence showed the mirror wasn’t broken that night. Both Cameron and Hollingshead, she said, testified that they were standing by one of the vehicles doors when Schaffer struck the car.
“Had I done that, I’d have killed both of them,” she said, noting Cameron initially testified that the truck came within roughly an inch of hitting her.
But that inch may not have been as relevant as Schaffer thinks, said Chou Chou Collins, the county prosecutor who tried the case. Rather, she said the DA’s expert testified that while it was possible for Schaffer to have backed up without striking the other vehicle, it was equally possible that the bulky truck could have struck the officers, depending on how Schaffer angled it when pulling out.
The exact angle the truck took is, of course, not measurable.
Additionally, Schaffer has some harsh words for Collins, whom she says knowingly represented someone — in this case Cameron — “that wanted to be able to sue me.” After the incident at the rally, Cameron filed a workers compensation claim stating that she sustained a back injury when Schaffer’s car struck her. However, Schaffer points to the fact that Cameron received a workers comp denial just days previous.
“[Cameron] had this history of suspicious-looking workers compensation claims,” she said. In preparing their case, Schaffer and her attorney Greg Skordas obtained this history, as it was part of their case.
Collins, however, said she didn’t see why such a medical history was relevant. Cameron, she said, had fallen on ice “a week or two before the incident.”
“She was going through physical therapy,” Collins said. “I don’t know if she had a back problem even before that, but this incident aggravated the problem.”
Regarding Cameron and Hollingshead, Schaffer said that both women changed their testimony on the stand. “They told two different stories,” she said. “One that they were squished between the vehicles, and another that [I] stopped in front of them.”
Further, she said that Collins mischaracterized 911 tapes from the scene of the alleged crime. Here, said Schaffer, the PEOs can be heard saying that they were fine, and that Schaffer’s truck had not hit them. In contrast, she said Collins allowed the PEOs to call the parts of the tape that contained this testimony “unremarkable.”
“From the beginning I begged to listen to the 911 tapes, and before I heard them I didn’t know how exculpatory they were,” she said. Rather than hearing the voice of a PEO calling for a police officer, Schaffer said she heard “the woman saying she didn’t get hit and calling [the lesbian in the altercation] a man.”
Collins, however, said that the PEO on the tapes who said she was fine and wasn’t hit was Hollingshead, who did not claim workers compensation or accuse Schaffer of injuring her.
“It took me a long time to figure out who was talking,” she said, noting that Cameron was distraught when making the call and passed the phone to Hollingshead. “We were listening to the tape preparing for the trial, and Ashley said, ‘That’s me.’”
Overall, Collins said that the PEOs felt like they were just doing their job by enforcing parking regulations, and that they were “targeted for this by Diana. They felt it was retaliation.’
“And that’s what this case is all about: parking enforcement officers doing their job,” she said.
Outside of the courtroom, Schaffer said that two other aspects of her case were mishandled, first by Officer Tim Stumm who arrested her, and then by the jail that booked her. Stumm, she said, told her that he smelled alcohol on her breath and accused her of drinking and driving, which she had not been doing. (Collins said that Stumm mentions smelling alcohol when he and Schaffer were in the squad car, but that this never came up during the trial). She also said that the crime scene unit refused to allow her husband to take pictures of the truck before moving it to a nearby church parking lot to take their own photos.
Neither Collins nor DA Lohra Miller said they knew why, or even if, this had occurred.
“I don’t know if the officer said one way or another if he allowed or disallowed [Schaffer’s husband to take photographs]. But the reason why they took it to the parking lot was for better lighting,” said Collins.
When she arrived at the jail, Schaffer said that she was made to wait hours before being booked, even though there were no others waiting to be processed. In addition to jail staff calling her names for supposedly having injured an officer, she said she was double-billed on bail — $20,000 instead of $10,000. Her bail record shows that this was the case, and that the $10,000 was eventually refunded.
“But in order to get it back [pre trial services] said I had to go to anger management classes for six Saturdays,” she said. “I had to call in every day to check in and I couldn’t leave the state, and I wasn’t supposed to drink any alcohol. Those were the conditions of me getting my money back and it took me months to get my money back.”
Indeed, the bail record shows that Schaffer’s husband posted $20,000 in bail on Dec. 15, 2008. It shows that the excess amount was refunded Feb. 9, 2009.
“The court can authorize bail to be posted in addition to other requirements that are supposed to help assure the court while you’re awaiting trial that you’re not presenting a danger to the community,” Miller explained. When asked why Schaffer would have been made to take anger management courses, she said that her office typically didn’t get involved in pre-trial service matters.
“I don’t know the facts of this specific case, but it may be that the court ordered that she be released to pre-trial services, and part of the condition for her release was an anger management course,” she said.
Even though Schaffer was eventually found not guilty, she said that the trial took an enormous toll on her family and on her, particularly because she had been accepted into the University of Utah’s law school shortly before the incident at the downtown rally. What upsets her most about the case, she said, is the fact that so many city and county personnel were called against her, and the pressure put upon her to make a plea.
“I want people to know what kind of things happen and can happen,” she said. “It was like the prosecutors went into the office and said, ‘who wants to make some overtime?’”
Since her legal battle began, Schaffer said that she met many city and county residents who she said had faced or were facing charges that involved either poor police work, pressures from the DA’s office to accept a plea, or charges in which several city and county employees were called against them.
One such person was D.J. Bell. Bell, a gay man, faced his own legal battle in 2008 and 2009 when a neighbor accused him of kidnapping her children. After she returned the children to her house, she and other family members entered Bell’s house and beat him and his partner, Dan Fair. Bell, who faced up to 30 years in prison on burglary and kidnapping charges, was found not guilty in 2009.
“This is a disgusting travesty of justice, a HUGE waste of taxpayer money, and there is something that does not sit right about the fact that there are several people in varying degrees of local authority involved, ranging from city employees, to officers of the law, to court employees who write the hearing transcripts, and so on,” wrote Bell in a now-deleted Facebook post. “Because the plaintiff is a city employee, there has been a lot of pressure to pursue charges against this innocent woman. … She has refused several plea deals including a misdemeanor “leaving the scene”, because she is innocent. There was no “scene” to be left; unless you count the one where a lesbian was being harassed by a meter maid, and Diana told her to knock it off.”
“I think this problem is a lot bigger than me or D.J.,” said Schaffer. “It’s not necessarily an LGBT issue, it’s an issue of an incompetence, and that’s probably the nicest thing I can say prosecutor and DA’s office. I don’t know what will fix it.”
Similar criticisms have been leveled at Miller’s office, including by attorneys Sim Gill and Greg Skordas (who also served as Schaffer’s lawyer), both of whom ran campaigns to challenge Miller at the ballot box this November (of the two, only Gill will be going on).
Miller, however, said that her office was simply doing its job.
“Our office filing standards are to look at admissible evidence and to determine that there is a reasonable likelihood of success at a trial,” she said. “We don’t file charges unless we believe that the person committed the crime.”
Although Miller’s office has touted its toughness on crime, including its 70 percent conviction rate in domestic violence cases, Miller said that convictions are not “another notch on the belt.”
“[Schaffer’s case] is an example of where the system works,” she said. “I would’ve said that if it was a conviction—that ultimately we trust in the jury system and we agree with the jury’s verdicts.”