SALT LAKE CITY — During her 10 years as a Utah state trooper, Lisa Steed built a reputation as an officer with a knack for nabbing drunken motorists in a state with a long tradition of teetotaling and some of the nation’s strictest liquor laws.
Steed used the uncanny talent — as one supervisor once described it — to garner hundreds of arrests, setting records, earning praise as a rising star and becoming the first woman to become trooper of the year.
Today, however, Steed is out of work, fired from the Utah Highway Patrol, and she — and her former superiors — are facing a lawsuit in which some of those she arrested allege she filed bogus DUI reports.
“If we don’t stand up to Lisa Steed or law enforcement, they just pull people over for whatever reason they want,” said attorney Michael Studebaker.
Steed declined to comment, but her attorney Greg Skordas said she denies the allegations. She is trying to get her job back.
The people snared by Steed say the arrests disrupted their lives and were costly to resolve.
Michael Choate, a now-retired aircraft logistics specialist at Hill Air Force Base, said he nearly lost his security clearance and job.
Steed stopped him because he was wearing a Halloween costume and booked him even though three breathalyzers tests showed no alcohol in his system. Choate said he spent $3,800 and had to take four days off of work to get his DUI charged dismissed.
The 49-page lawsuit includes two defendants, but Studebaker said dozens of others are lined up and willing to tell their stories. He said they are requesting the lawsuit be broadened into a class action lawsuit.
Every one of her DUI stops back to at least 2006 should be under suspicion, he said, adding that could be as many as 1,500 people.
The lawsuit, filed in December, also accuses the Utah Highway Patrol of ignoring Steed’s patterns of higher-than-normal DUI bookings and waited too long to take her off patrol. The agency declined to comment.
Steed joined the agency in 2002, and during her first five years, she earned a reputation as a hard-worker whose efficiency led to high arrest totals. By the time she ascended to trooper of the year in 2007, she was held up as one of the agency’s top stars.
In 2009, Steed became a member of the DUI squad. Her 400 DUI arrests that year were thought to be a state record, and more than double the number made by any other highway trooper. She earned special recognition at the state Capitol.
“With her training and experience, it’s second nature for her to find these people who are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” her DUI squad boss at the time, Lt. Steve Winward, told the Deseret News.
During a ride-along with the newspaper, Steed said it was simply a “numbers game,” noting that one in every 10 drivers stopped for a violation is driving impaired. “It’s a lot of hard work, but you make a ton of stops, and you’re going to run into them,” she said.
Steed’s career, however, turned. In 2012, while on the stand in a DUI court case, Steed acknowledged purposely leaving her microphone in her patrol car so that superiors wouldn’t know she was violating agency policy.
By April 2012, her credibility had come into question so much that a prosecutor said he would no longer prosecute DUIs if Steed’s testimony was the only evidence.
In October, the Salt Lake Tribune obtained a memo written in May 2010 in which Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Rob Nixon flagged Steed’s “pattern” of questionable DUI arrests. He wrote that the bulk of Steed’s arrestees had no signs of “impairing drugs” in their systems.
The memo said she based most of her arrests on signs of impairment such as dilated pupils and leg and body tremors.
Steed was taken off road patrol in April 2012 and fired in November. She was accused of violating department policies, falsifying police reports and using questionable practices when making DUI arrests.
The lawsuit is based on two defendants: Thomas Romero and Julie Tapia.
Romero was stopped after Steed said he was swerving, according to the lawsuit. After Romero said he wasn’t drinking, Steed gave him a roadside sobriety test anyway. She booked him for DUI even though his blood alcohol content was 0.00. Charges were dismissed.
Tapia went to pick up her ex-husband, who had been drinking. Steed approached Tapia as she got out of her car at her house, saying Tapia had been speeding, the lawsuit said. Steed said she could smell alcohol, and Tapia told her it was coming from her ex-husband.
Tapia was arrested for a DUI; her ex-husband for public intoxication. Tapia’s blood test showed no alcohol. Charges were dropped.
Choate, who hopes to join the lawsuit, said the entire agency should be held responsible for the damage Steed caused to him and others. “They let her get away with it for a long time,” he said.