Navigating Utah’s Justice Courts

Stephen Howard — Stone River Law

Real People. Real Solutions.

Knowing your legal rights and understanding Utah’s criminal justice system is crucial when facing criminal charges ibn Utah. Justice courts handle a substantial number of misdemeanor cases as part of Utah’s judicial system. If you find yourself in need of a criminal defense attorney, it is essential to have a firm grasp of the system and how to secure competent legal representation.

Criminal Charges in Justice Court

Justice courts in Utah handle a wide range of criminal cases, including domestic violence, theft, shoplifting, DUI, drug possession and paraphernalia charges, disorderly conduct, open container, intoxication, and more.

There is a common perception that some justice courts exist for the purpose of generating revenue for the municipality or county running the court. Many justice courts try to resolve cases quickly and efficiently. But as a person facing criminal charges, the quick solution is not always the best solution. Understanding your rights is critical.

Your Rights in Justice Court

Although justice courts handle only misdemeanor charges, your rights in justice court are mainly the same as the rights you would have in district court.

  1. Right to Legal Representation: Any charge carrying the potential for jail time triggers the right to be represented by an attorney. The right to be represented can be seen as the most important right, since having good legal counsel is often the key to ensuring that your other rights are protected.
  2. Right to Remain Silent: The constitutional privilege against self-incrimination provides that you do not have to answer questions from police or testify at trial. More important than just remaining silent, the privilege against self-incrimination requires that a jury cannot draw any negative inferences against you at trial based on your choice to remain silent.
  3. Right to a Fair Trial by Jury: Under Utah law, the right to demand a trial by jury applies to all misdemeanor and felony charges. The right to trial also encompasses several other rights, including the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, the right to present evidence, the right to testify (or to choose not to testify) on your own behalf, and the right to be presumed innocent at trial.

The Criminal Defense Process

To navigate the criminal defense process effectively, consider the following steps:

  1. Hiring an Attorney: Your first step should be to retain an experienced criminal defense attorney. You do not need to wait until your first court hearing before hiring an attorney. Instead, early involvement by a good defense attorney – even while police are still investigating the case – can improve your chances of reaching a positive case outcome. A good attorney can provide valuable insights and explanations that can help build a solid foundation for your defense..
  2. Case Evaluation and Development: The process of case evaluation is an ongoing process. It is rare that any attorney will have all of the necessary case information when first beginning to build a defense. Legal analysis can change significantly as new and additional information is gathered. Discovery processes through the court and independent investigation can be important parts of developing a strong defense case.
  3. Negotiation and Resolution: In many cases, your attorney will work to negotiate with the prosecution for a favorable plea agreement or dismissal of charges.
  4. Court Proceedings: The first hearing in a justice court case is the arraignment, where the judge gives formal notice of the charges filed. Arraignment also provides an opportunity to enter a not guilty plea. Other hearings between arraignment and potential trial may include pretrial conferences, disposition hearings, motion hearings, evidentiary hearings, and scheduling conferences.
  5. Trial: If a resolution is reached between the defense and prosecution, then a trial may be unnecessary. However, if no resolution can be reached, Utah law guarantees the right to trial by jury, even in misdemeanor justice court cases.

Finding the Right Criminal Defense Attorney

Facing criminal charges in Utah’s justice courts can be a daunting experience. But with the right legal representation and a good understanding of your rights, you can navigate the process successfully.