Southern Utah News Articles
Top Stories for April 29, 2009
Knowing the law
Most people do not fully understand court proceedings. The State of Utah Administrative Office of the Courts under the direction of Dan Becker has information on the navigation of the court system. To better inform readers, the Southern Utah News will be highlighting different aspects of our court system.
How a felony comes to trial
It all begins when a prosecuting attorney files "an information" or indictment. The information will list the name of the defendant, natures of the offense, and a description of the crime alleged to have occurred.
In most cases, this is public information. Any citizen can request (usually for a small fee) a copy. When the case involves children, names may be redacted to protect them.
In felony cases, the information filing will have been preceded by one of two events. 1) The defendant has already been arrested based on a law enforcement officer observing what he believes to be illegal conduct and making an arrest; the officer then refers the matter to a prosecuting attorney for screening and filing. 2) The case is a criminal investigation from which arrests have not yet been made. When this happens, the prosecutor will then request an arrest warrant at the time the information is filed.
When the defendant is arrested, they are taken into custody, booked into jail, fingerprinted and evaluated to see if release is possible, until the case is resolved in a court of law.
They can get out of jail by posting bail or being released on the own recognizance following the evaluation. If there is reasonable assurance that the defendant will appear for court hearings and is not a significant risk to the community, they may be released.
If they aren''t released on their own recognizance, the defendant usually posts bail of which amount is set on the severity of the crime and the defendant''s history. Bail is money that the defendant deposits with a court to guarantee future appearances in court.
Most of us have heard of bail bondsmen. What they do is offer bail bonds for the person being charged with the crime who cannot come up with the bail amount on their own. The company posts the bail bond with the court and agrees to pay the bail if the defendant does not show for court hearings. If by chance he/she doesn''t appear, the bail is usually forfeited and a warrant is issued for the defendant''s arrest. Cash bail or a bail bond is released when the defendant is sentenced and defendant has made all required court appearances.
First appearance-the defendant is formally notified of the charges and advised of rights. If they can''t afford an attorney, the court appoints one. A date is set for the preliminary hearing. A plea is not entered at this time.
Preliminary hearing-the purpose for this court proceeding is to determine whether probable cause exists to show a crime may have been committed and whether probable cause exists to show the defendant was the person who committed the crime. The judge listens to witness testimony and evidence presented. He then determines whether the defendant should be bound over for trial. If the judge decides there is not sufficient evidence, the case is dismissed. In this proceeding, more weight is usually given to the prosecution.
Arraignment- The judge reads the information to the defendant. The defendant must enter a plea at this time. If the plea is guilty, the case is scheduled for sentencing. If the plea is not guilty, a trial date is usually set.
*It''s important to note that along this process, there can be numerous status and motion hearings. A status hearing is when the court finds out how the two sides, defense and prosecution, are moving forward in their cases, and when trial dates should be scheduled.
The prosecution is required to share ''discovery'' with the defense. That basically means they have to give a list and copies of their information and witnesses to that of the defense.
This can take a long time, because both sides usually disagree about what should be shared. Add to it, if the case involves juveniles, some of what the defense is asking may be prohibited by the judge.
There can be pretrial motions, from both the defense and prosecution. A motion is a formal request for the judge to issue an order.
A plea bargain takes place when the prosecutor and defense attorney negotiate a mutually satisfactory end of the case. The judge does not participate, but must approve or reject any deal before it is final. The defendant also must approve the plea bargain. A victim of a crime has a right to be consulted on the plea bargain, but is not allowed to veto the prosecutor''s decision to enter into such.
Trial- a jury of peers are seated, and the decision they render after hearing all the evidence is final. The defendant faces whatever consequences the legal system has for what he/she is charged with. The judge has ultimate authority over sentencing the person as such.