A 19-year-old woman was charged with a hate crime in Utah after a sheriff's deputy accused her of destroying a "Back the Blue" sign and "smirking" at him in an "intimidating manner" following a routine traffic stop at a gas station last week.
Lauren Gibson of California was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief with a hate crime enhancement — a misdemeanor committed with the "intent to intimidate or terrorize another person."
The charge carries a maximum one-year sentence.
Garfield County Sheriff's Deputy Cree Carter wrote in a probable cause affidavit that he saw Gibson "stomping on a 'Back the Blue' sign next to where the traffic stop was conducted, crumble it up in a destructive manner and throw it into a trash can all while smirking in an intimidating manner towards me."
Carter also wrote that the allegations were being treated as a hate crime because of "the demeanor displayed by Gibson in attempts to intimidate law enforcement while destroying a 'Pro Law Enforcement' sign."
The Garfield County Attorney's Office did not return a request for comment.
The ACLU of Utah said the 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."
In a statement Monday, the organization said it has consistently warned that hate crime enhancements are often used to "single out unpopular groups or messages rather than provide protections for marginalized communities."
"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," the ACLU said.
Gibson told the Daily Beast on Monday that while she was not "anti-police," she believed that they tend to abuse their power.
Her attorney did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Gibson said that she and her friends were returning to California in cars after camping in Panguitch on July 7, when the sheriff's deputy pulled them over and wrote her friend a ticket for speeding.
Gibson said that she got angry over how the sheriff's deputy treated her friend during the traffic stop, saying he was aggressive. Gibson said she then picked up a rusted "Back the Blue sign" that she and her friends had kept in a car after finding it on the side of a road, waved it at the deputy, stepped on it, and threw it in the trash.
“I just wanted to, I don’t know, make her feel better or something or stand up for her,” Gibson told the Daily Beast, adding that she was shocked by the charge.
The Garfield County Sheriff's Office disputed Gibson's claim, saying that the officer did not give any of the occupants of the vehicles a ticket.
In a statement Wednesday, the sheriff's office said the deputy initiated a traffic stop at the gas stop after three vehicles were going 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The officer advised the drivers to slow down, but did not give them a ticket, the statement added.
The sheriff's office alleged that Gibson used a stolen "Back the Blue" sign and showed "extremely aggressive and violent behavior towards the officer in a very busy parking lot."
However, in court documents, the deputy did not describe any violent behavior by Gibson and did not provide evidence of the sign being stolen.
In his affidavit, Carter wrote that he confronted Gibson about where she got the "Back the Blue" sign from after he saw her destroying it. He said that Gibson told him it was her mother's sign and that she was in California. He also said that he told Gibson those signs were made by the sheriff's office, but he could not determine where the sign had been taken from.
Carter wrote that he separated Gibson from her friends and began questioning her about where she had acquired the sign. He accused her of offering "inconsistent stories" before she said she found it on the ground. Carter said that he arrested her because she destroyed property that did not belong to her "in an attempt to intimidate" him.
In their statement, the sheriff's office said that Gibson "purposely targeted the officer in a very unpeaceful manner," describing the deputy as a veteran with an "exemplary record" and without a single complaint against him.
The statement said that the sheriff's deputy was "singled out and attacked by this person because he was a law enforcement officer."
The sheriff's office also said that the "Back the Blue" signs were made in Panguitch and are found in yards and businesses all over Garfield County.
"We are greatly disturbed by the hatred shown to law enforcement officers for no apparent reason," the sheriff's office said. "We are hopeful that this country can mend and heal from the division."
In 2019, Utah passed a hate crime law that provides harsher penalties for people convicted of targeting victims based not only on their personal attributes, such as race, gender, and age, but also things like their "status as a law enforcement officer," among others.
Last August, the Garfield County Sheriff's Office arrested and charged Joseph Dawson with a hate crime for vandalizing a "Back the Blue" sign in Escalante. Dawson, 32, was accused of pulling down the sign and spray-painting the word "bisexual" over the word "blue" in pink letters, the Daily Beast reported.
He spent two nights in county jail, was sentenced to a year's probation, and fined $500.