Court Upholds Reinstatement Of Officer Who Used Peyote In Religious Rites

In March 2006, the Salt Lake City, Utah Police Department terminated Officer Terri Begay for allegedly growing and distributing peyote in violation of Section 841(a) of the United States Code. The Department’s rules required its officers to “obey the law,” and the Department alleged that Begay’s violation of Section 841(a) constituted a violation of its own rules.

When Begay appealed her termination to the City’s Civil Service Commission, issues arose concerning how federal law treats the use of peyote in a religious setting. While peyote is considered a Schedule I controlled substance, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) permits “the use, possession, or transportation by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion.”The Commission concluded that Begay did not “grow, cultivate, or manufacture the peyote, and used it only in the context of religious ceremonies.” In the eyes of the Commission, a lesser sanction such as counseling or a warning rather than termination should have been imposed by the Department.

The City appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals. The Court upheld the Commission’s decision reinstating Begay.
The Court concluded that “the Commission did not abuse its discretion in finding that Begay’s activity did not constitute the growing, cultivating, or manufacturing of peyote. In finding Begay did not grow, cultivate or manufacture peyote, the Commission relied on the following evidence: (1) Begay received a bag of peyote plants or buttons as a gift at a religious ceremony to be used in future religious ceremonies; (2) Begay placed these plants or buttons in soil to preserve them for future use; (3) Begay’s preservation of the peyote plants or buttons was akin to the use of refrigerators to preserve fruits or vegetables; (4) preservation is the proper term to describe Begay’s possession of the peyote plants or buttons since, according to a DEA expert witness, there is no potential peyote would grow if a person merely kept it, as peyote grows only in certain areas of Texas and Mexico.”

Although there was conflicting evidence before the Court as to whether Begay’s treatment of the peyote plants or buttons constituted growing, cultivating, or manufacturing peyote, the Court found that the Commission had the authority to ultimately determine that the evidence supporting Begay’s engagement in these activities was not “persuasive.” The Court concluded by noting that it would “defer to the Commission’s determination and find substantial evidence to support the Commission’s conclusion. Thus, we affirm the Commission’s conclusion that Begay did not violate the law – the justification the Department gave for her termination.”

Salt Lake City Corporation v. Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission, 2006 WL 350202 (Utah App. 2006).

This article appears in the April 2006 issue