Salt Lake, officer to settle in peyote suit
A former Salt Lake City police lieutenant, who happens to be Native American, says she was fired after her superiors found out she and her husband used the hallucinogenic plant peyote in religious ceremonies. Now, attorneys for Salt Lake City have agreed to enter into settlement negotiations and seek to have the suit dismissed outside of court.
During a hearing in U.S. District court Wednesday, attorney Erik Strindberg said after months of discussion, Salt Lake City has agreed to enter into supervised mediation with his client, Terry Begay.
Begay claims she is seeking compensation for religious and racial discrimination by Salt Lake City. According to her suit, she was hired as a police officer by the Salt Lake Police Department in 1986. Begay and her husband are both practicing members of the Native American Church. Begay says she is a member of the Cherokee Chippewa Tribe of Oklahoma and her husband is a member of the Shoshone Tribe of Nevada.
As part of their religious beliefs, Begay acknowledges that she uses peyote in some of the sacraments at the Native American Church. According to the suit, Begay also noted that she and her husband had peyote in their possession and maintained the peyote according to their religion's standard practices.
In August 2002 the Salt Lake City police received an anonymous letter alleging that Begay was using and providing peyote to others in Native American ceremonies. In January 2003, the department opened a formal investigation into the allegations and Begay admitted to using peyote as part of her religious belief. In March, she was fired from the department.
According to the department, Begay was fired for violating department policy to obey the law. The department maintains that Begay violated the policy by using and distributing peyote. However, although peyote is a Schedule One controlled substance, federal law allows members of a federally recognized tribe to use and possess it.
Begay fought to get her job back. She appealed her termination to the Salt Lake Civil Service Commission, which set aside Begay's termination and ordered Salt Lake City Police Department to reinstate Begay with back pay. Salt Lake City appealed, but again the Salt Lake Civil Service Commission upheld their decision. The city appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals. In February, the court of appeals noted that Begay was entitled to use and possess peyote and upheld the commission's decision.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has held the use of certain hallucinogenic drugs, such as peyote, is constitutional for religious practice, although peyote itself can only be used by Native American tribal members.
Strindberg said Salt Lake police never reinstated Begay. Instead, she was placed on paid leave but not given back pay. Strindberg said the city went after Begay's accreditation as a law enforcement officer and filed action against her with Peace Officer Standards and Training. After a hearing, POST suspended Begay's license for five years. That decision is now pending before the Utah Court of Appeals.
Strindberg said both POST and Salt Lake City have both agreed to enter into mediation to reach a settlement with Begay resolving all issues related to the dispute. An attorney for Salt Lake City confirmed in court Wednesday that she expected all parties to enter into settlement negotiations by late July or August.
Strindberg said it is his client's ultimate hope to once again be a law enforcement officer.
By Geoffrey Fattah