Cornerstone, Drew

Prosecuting Polygamists

I once attended a continuing legal education course entitled “How to Prosecute Polygamists.”  I couldn’t help feeling a little anxious sitting in the audience while listening to the presentation about how to put me in jail (especially after they mentioned they were targeting attorneys and other people who’d taken an oath of office) and when a plural wife stood up and announced that she was a polygamists, the animosity in the room grew palpable.  I learned dozens of helpful tidbits of information that day but a few things stood out that are worth sharing here (because fans regularly ask these questions).

First, the presenter (David Leavitt as I recall) informed us that when they decided to prosecute Mr. Green, they needed to ensure that they had public support because in the polygamy raids in 1953 ended in a PR disaster.  Rather than just prosecuting Mr. Green on bigamy charges, they actively looked for something else to charge him with because they needed the public to feel outrage against him.  That is why they went after the welfare fraud charge.  The presenter noted thatMr. Green owed something like $90,000 in welfare benefits but he failed to mention why.  I spoke with Mr. Green who explained the situation to me after he was released from prison.  He had four or five pre-fab homes out in the desert.  A twister/tornado tore apart each of the homes, which were attached one to another or close to one another (these were details that didn’t matter much to my memory apparently!).  Homeless with five wives and a quiver full of children, he went to the welfare office for assistance.  He told them his situation, explained he was a polygamist, asked for help, and promised to repay whatever he received when he had resources.  When he was back on top of things and his business was functioning again (he ran it from home at the time as I recall), he was set to go to a court hearing to set up payments.  When Mr. Green appeared in front of the judge to arrange payments, he was charged with welfare fraud because (regardless of the situation) if you owe a certain amount of money to the state after receiving assistance, it is considered fraud.  So, instead of telling the public that Mr. Green was trying to pay back monies he’d received from public assistance, they charged him with welfare fraud for the sole purpose of inciting public opinion against him.  As the presenter noted: $90k may seem like a lot to the public but that is a drop in the bucket to the welfare office.  Lesson #1 summed up?  Utah wants to prosecute polygamists but the public doesn’t approve unless Utah makes them look bad so if you want to prosecute, look for an angle that makes them look bad. 

Second, the state used common law marriage to trigger the bigamy clause. In other words,Mr. Green wasn’t legally married to all of his wives, just one of them.  The state proved thatMr. Green had children with and lived with each wife and thereby established a common law marriage concurrent with his legal marriage (there were other evidences as well).  They then used those concurrent marriages to satisfy the bigamy statute.  So, avoiding getting married at all, divorcing legal wives, and similar efforts simply aren’t foolproof.  Lesson #2 summed up? If you’re a polygamist and you have any children with plural wives or if you just live together part of the time, you’re subject to the statute.

Utah has publicly stated numerous times that they are only looking to prosecute polygamists who commit abuses but polygamists don’t trust this rhetoric.  Why?  For starters, they use the statute to persecute polygamists in a myriad of ways, including visitation rights in divorces and heavy handed treatment by judges (I attended one hearing where the judge ordered a mother to not teach her children her religious beliefs – she understood that she was ordered to teach them about Santa Clause however because the father wanted that tradition to continue; another judge told my client in a divorce case [without any pending charges or investigation whatsoever] that he lost certain rights when he became a felon).  Yes, abuses like these can be appealed but it costs thousands of dollars and it is very stressful and it takes months to appeal cases.  Some clients simply don’t have the time or resources or the wherewithal to appeal abusive decisions.  I’ve also seen attorneys funding wives leaving non-abusive polygamist relationships with housing, transportation, jobs, and legal representation to ensure the polygamist father didn’t get custody of the children and only received supervised visitation rights.  I once referred a polygamist friend to an attorney who was a successful divorce lawyer.  I later found out he was throwing my friend under the bus and overcharging him in a “hopeless” divorce case.  When I found out what was going on, I helped my friend correct the situation and retain custody of his children. 

All of these examples ignore the obvious question:

Utah reenacted the bigamy statute after it was overturned as unconstitutional on several grounds – why did it do that?  Instead of correcting the unconstitutional provisions (my law partner and I drafted a bill that addressed each of these provisions and toughened laws against cult leaders using religion to commit abuses against women and children), the Utah law stiffened the penalties, made plural wives prosecutable, and its sponsor publicly announced that his purpose was to send a message to polygamists that they were “apostates” who were “hijacking” his religion.  The Utah legislature didn’t bat an eye that the bill’s sponsor publicly stated that the Mormon Church was behind the bill or that the purpose of the bill was to further religious persecution.  

When people say: Utah has this policy so you have no reason to worry about the state prosecuting you or your wives if you’re not abusive, I ask that obvious question: if that is true, why reenact the statute without addressing the unconstitutional provisions in the first place?  If the policy is so clear, why is the statute used in Utah court rooms regularly to harass polygamists?  If that is true, why are tens of thousands of Utah polygamists afraid of the law being used against them in many different ways?  If that is true, why did Utah investigate Kody Brown when he appeared on TLC?  Did anyone report him for abuse?  No.  Was there any evidence of abuse on the show?  No.  And finally, if there is a change in the attorney general or local prosecuting attorneys, do these policy declarations hold any weight?  Maybe.  Maybe not. 

That is why polygamists are still scared of the law.  If it isn’t going to be used Utah, put it in writing.  Enact a law that reflects this policy instead of an unconstitutional law that is much more intimidating and aggressive towards otherwise law abiding men and women who are just trying to live their religion the best they can.


There you have it: how to prosecute polygamists 101.  




fn: Any comments about Mr. Green will not be approved below.  I am aware that he’s a controversial figure.  I’m aware that he is generally regarded as a bad example of polygamy.  Those issues are valid concerns but they are not pertinent to the purposes of this post, which is explaining how the state approaches the prosecution of polygamists in Utah and how that affects our family.

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19 thoughts on “Prosecuting Polygamists

  1. The law pursuing polygamaists with all the terrible people roaming the streets and killing people and getting drugs to kids absolutely sickens me …let the families be comfortable in their homes and community. .God bless them

  2. If “the wives” called themselves Baby Mamas and the husband called himself the Baby Daddy, no one would even look twice at them.

    1. Can’t agree – if scriptures were better implemented to New Testament standards; if the women agree, so be it. There are indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin where woman have multiple agreed upon husbands. Imagine litigating that in U.S. court.

  3. This just stomps all over the constitution; mainly in the form of Freedom of Speech. So now US Citizens are felons determined by their ‘speech’. I say go for that legality. Common Law (in Texas) requires that one actually show up at a county courthouse and fill in the forms to be common law married legally. I realize that many of these marriages are only determined when they show up in divorce court; but evidence of SAYING someone is your husband/wife is part of that :(:( crap. I just made their case.. dang it!
    I dunno. SOMEWHERE there has to be a kick butt lawyer to diffuse that mess of legislation. It is WRONG. It’s written improperly, does not make sense, and is UNconstitutional. Period.
    I worked for family law attorneys all of my young adult life. I still LOVE to type. Let me know if you need some volunteers! 🙂 I’m pretty disgusted, and I’ve never had a thing to do with ANY of it. I think it’s just sick, that, as other posters have said, with all the bums out there today, that any gov. would want to attack kind, loving, hardworking Americans.
    And.. hey.. what about that ‘shall make no law’ regarding ‘religion’ part of our Constitution?? Hmmm???!!!

    1. Thank you. Kody Brown challenged the law once and may do so again. Others are considering the possibility. I’ll let you know if they go that direction and need some extra help. God bless.

  4. From what I can see there are two types of polygamy . Warren Jeff’s version of child brides,pedefelia, horrible abuse sexual physical and mental. Actual polygamy vis about love and family . People think polygamy is what horrific stuff Warren Jeff’s and his cult are known for. Watching the browns and you guys ect goes to show it’s not that! Everyone seems happy healthy loved and content . Nobody is there by force as it is in jeff cult. While I don’t practice polygamy I a hundred percent support thier right to live as they want. Every single one of the wives are there bc they choose to be. Every one of the kids are happy healthy and loved. There’s no abuse going on . Ppeople need to understand the Warren Jeff’s cult is not what polgamy is , he’s a sick excuse for a human being , all polygamist should not be hated and demonized bc of him. They are happy let them be! I like to think I’m a good judge of character and I have nothing but respect for polygwmy as a whole.

  5. As an atheist I feel like religion should not be anywhere except in your home or your church. Not in schools, not in law etc. That being said, as a resident of Utah I did not feel like the state of Utah would have the time, energy or resources to prosecute all the polygamists living in the state. I felt like the law was passed to ensure felony charges against those who would use religion to justify underage marriage and child molestation.

    I don’t have any problem with ADULTS living any way they choose. It’s when someone if forced into any lifestyle that I have a problem with it.

    But, I do have a question – if “God” has a plan that has the only way to heaven is through plural marriage, wouldn’t “God” make that possible for all his children? To that end – if polygamy is the way…..wouldn’t there be MANY more girls born than boys? Or is “God” just not great with math?
    I find this a glaring reason that this cannot be true.

    1. As an attorney who has practice in Utah for 16 years and who has worked with polygamists for most of the time I practiced law, I can tell you that this law is not only “to ensure felony charges against those who would use religion to justify underage marriage and child molestation.” That’s the rhetoric but it isn’t reality. You can read more about those details on this blog.

      The law is daily used to persecute polygamists throughout the state. If underage marriages and child molestation were the only reaches of the law, we wouldn’t have sacrificed to put our family on national tv. We too oppose those who abuse children and force marriages, etc.

      Given your tone about God and math, I presume you are not sincerely interested in our doctrinal beliefs and will defer to answer.

      1. Thanks for the information on this blog. That CLE class must have been SO uncomfortable for you, to say the least! I always wondered WHY polygamy was illegal. I’m still a bit confused and even more confused by watching the show. I am a christian but what do I care how others live their lives as long as they’re treating their children and wives with dignity and respect. This is the most frustrating thing I’ve found while working in Law. The laws and statutes contradict each other and the good statutes in place aren’t even prosecuted . I just started reading your blog but I hope you and your family have found some peace in Oregon and are able to live as you are!

        1. Thank you Lindsey. I’ve always found it shocking at the high level attorneys are held to in court rooms when presenting evidence and arguments while lawmakers pass can many inane laws and contradictory statutes with no repercussions at all.

      2. Seems to me that you made a forgone conclusion about my “tone” the minute you read that I am an atheist.
        As I defer to your experience with the law in the state of Utah, I was only stating my opinion as a resident, that I have not seen any family being prosecuted simply on the basis of their living arrangements. I am sure that you feel that you are being persecuted, but as an attorney I am sure you know that leaving the state of Utah would not prohibit the state from prosecuting you if that was their intent.
        It is just my opinion, nothing more.
        As an atheist I always find it interesting how your “tone” completely changes the minute you know this fact – yet you expect me to respectful of your beliefs.
        I was, in fact, very sincere in my question about the inequity of births. To my non-religious mind it does not make any sense.
        Let’s say tomorrow, the world was enlightened to the knowledge that polygamy was the only way to Heaven. How would that ever work?

  6. Lindsey, your tone was evident, not from your religious persuasion (yes, I consider Atheism a religion and no, I have no aggression towards that religious persuasion). Your tone was evident from your query that God may not be good at math. The comment was clearly patronizing and rhetorical as any half-educated atheist is aware that every existing theist religion esteems God as omniscient (by some definition) and by definition would perfunctorily be capable of handling the sophomoric mathematic challenge you posed.

    Your question is based upon at least one false premise so first, let’s clear that up. Mormons (with few exceptions) do not believe in one heaven and one hell. To put it simply, Mormons believe in multiple heavens. Most Mormons believe that people are only married in the highest heaven. We, as fundamentalist (originalist) Mormons, believe that women will attain the highest degree of heaven in greater proportions than men and that more men than women will fail to attain to any degree of heaven at all. So, disproportionality is mathematically viable without having to believe that God suffers from elementary math deficiencies.

    As to the law, I cannot comment as to what you’ve noticed or felt, of course. I can only comment as to what newspapers, courtrooms, and lawsuits report and I can say that this knowledge (not feeling) comes from many years of defending polygamists in courtrooms against severe consequences, not casual observation.

    I am aware of the statute of limitations and I’m keenly aware that it is tolling day by day whereas staying in the state of Utah would not have allowed for that luxury. I’m also keenly aware that the law has already been successfully attacked before it was reenacted so prosecuting me would be very risky to the state of Utah and it it is prohibitively expensive to prosecute an out of state defendant so moving out of state almost guarantees that the state of Utah will take zero action against my family.

  7. Being raised in the Mormon faith I completely understand the levels of glory (celestial, terrestrial, telestial) but my question as posed, was if everyone person was to convert to your faith (as I am assuming your God has allowed for every person to be able to attain the highest level of glory) this would be mathematically impossible. Just another observation.

    For every show that is trying to show how Polygamy is just an “alternate lifestyle” there is another show that uncovers the abuses going on in the polygamist community. I actually feel like it should be de-criminalized (based on everyone entering into the lifestyle as being an adult) because I feel like the secrecy allows for the abuse.

    And, just as an aside – I actually had polygamists living next door to me for almost 30 years. The house would never go up for sale – just overnight, a new family would live there. I never felt the need to get involved or to “report” anyone. They were all adults. It being a rather small home, it generally only had one family living there (but there was a period of time that there were 3 women there) I assume they were FLDS as in the middle of the night the house was empty.

    I don’t agree with polygamy, but again, just my opinion.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am realizing that I know very little regarding this subject.

    Blessings to you and your family.

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