Notice: System maintenance will be performed this weekend beginning Friday, July 19, 2024, at 5:00 p.m. MST

Some or all areas of the website may be unavailable during this maintenance period.

Criminal Processes

You can have a lawyer help you in your criminal case

The laws in the United States and Utah give you the right to have a lawyer help you if you are accused of a crime. If you cannot afford to pay for a lawyer yourself, the government will provide one for free if you might go to jail, even for a short time.

When you first go to court, the judge will explain your right to a lawyer. You should ask for one at this time. The judge will have you fill out a form listing your income, assets, and debts. If your income is less than 150% of the federal poverty level, you will qualify for a free lawyer. Even if your income is higher, the court may still give you a free lawyer if you can show you truly cannot afford to pay for one.

There are many steps in a criminal case. Your case could skip some of these steps.

Choose one of the options below for more information.

This is when the judge or commissioner tells you about the charges against you. They will also tell you about your rights, including your right to a lawyer. 

If you are being held by the state, the judge will decide whether you can be released on bail. Bail is money posted by you or on your behalf to guarantee that you will show up in court.

The court will then schedule your waiver hearing. A waiver hearing is when you will decide whether you want to have a preliminary hearing, or if you will waive your right to a preliminary hearing and schedule an arraignment instead.

At this hearing, the judge looks at evidence to decide if it seems:

  • a crime was really committed
  • like you are the one who committed the crime

If there is evidence to support both, then there is "probable cause." A criminal case cannot continue if probable cause does not exist to support the charges against you. 

The judge will only consider evidence presented by the prosecutor. The judge cannot consider your evidence or any defense you want to raise when deciding if probable cause exists in your case. Your evidence and any defenses you want to present can be used after the preliminary hearing. If the judge thinks the prosecutor has enough evidence against you, your case moves ahead to trial. If not, the charges are dismissed.

The charges can also be changed at this hearing.

At the arraignment, you must enter a plea. You can enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. If you enter a:

  • not guilty plea, you deny the charges against you and preserve all of your options
  • guilty plea, you are admitting that the facts of your case are true, and you are the person who committed the charged crimes
  • no contest plea, you are agreeing to be responsible for the charged crimes, but you are not admitting the facts are true. A guilty plea and a no contest plea have the same effect, and are both considered a conviction. If you enter a guilty plea or no contest plea, the judge will make sure you understand the rights you are giving up.

The judge will only accept your guilty plea or no contest plea if they are satisfied you fully understand what it means and what the consequences are of your plea. Then a later date is scheduled for your sentencing.

If you plead not guilty, the court schedules dates for a pre-trial conference and your trial. This plea preserves all your options. A pre-trial conference is used to talk about any motions, issues, or questions you and the prosecutor have before trial.

There will be an arraignment
This is when the court tells you about your rights, including the right to a lawyer. You can talk with a lawyer before entering your plea if you want. The judge will delay the hearing to give you time for that.

When you are ready, the judge will read the charges to you. You must then enter a plea. You can enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. If you enter a:

  • not guilty plea, you deny the charges against you and preserve all of your options
  • guilty plea, you are admitting that the facts of your case are true, and you are the person who committed the charged crimes
  • no contest plea, you are agreeing to be responsible for the charged crimes, but you are not admitting the facts are true. 

A guilty plea and a no contest plea have the same effect, and are both considered a conviction. If you enter a guilty plea or no contest plea, the judge will make sure you understand the rights you are giving up.

The judge will only accept your guilty plea or no contest plea if they are satisfied you fully understand what it means and what the consequences are of your plea. Then a later date is scheduled for your sentencing.

If you plead not guilty, the court schedules dates for a pre-trial conference and your trial. This plea preserves all your options. A pre-trial conference is used to talk about any motions, issues, or questions you and the prosecutor have before trial.

Pretrial Motions
Before your trial begins, your lawyer and the prosecutor may file motions with the court. A motion is a formal request asking the judge to make a ruling. A motion can ask the judge to not allow certain evidence, like evidence of crimes you were convicted of before. Your lawyer may also file motions asking the prosecutor to share evidence with you. If you want to file a motion, you must do it at least 7 days before your trial, and it must be in writing. The judge has to decide on all motions before your trial can happen.

Pretrial Conference
The court may choose to hold a pretrial conference before your trial. At this conference, your lawyer and the prosecutor try to negotiate an agreement to settle your case instead of going to trial. The judge can decide not to approve any proposed settlement agreement. If no agreement is reached, your case will be set for a trial.

If your case is set for trial in Justice Court, and it involves domestic violence, you or the prosecutor can ask to have your case transferred to the District Court instead. To do this, file a Notice of Transfer form. This form can be found on the court's website under the Criminal Justice Forms section.
Utah Code 78A-7-106(6)

In this process, the prosecutor and your lawyer negotiate an agreement to resolve your case that satisfies both sides. The judge does not participate in the negotiations, but must approve any proposed plea agreement. You and the prosecutor must both agree to the plea bargain. If everyone accepts the plea bargain, and you enter a plea of guilty, the next step is for the judge to sentence you.

Your case may be decided by a judge alone in what is called a bench trial. Or it may be decided by a jury, with a judge also present. Whether your case is a criminal case or a civil case, and whether it is heard by a judge or a jury, the procedure is basically the same. 

If your case will be decided by a jury, the jury's decision must be unanimous for you to be found guilty. 

Either way, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime you are accused of. 

The lawyers on each side will make opening statements to the court and jury. They will explain what the case is about, the evidence they will show, and the facts they think the evidence will prove. Your lawyer may choose to wait and give the opening statement after the prosecutor has presented all their evidence. Or your lawyer may choose not to give an opening statement at all.

Each side will present their case using testimony from witnesses and physical evidence

The prosecution goes first
The prosecutor will call witnesses to testify directly about what they know regarding the alleged crime. Your lawyer can then cross-examine and ask questions of those same witnesses. After that, the prosecutor may re-examine their witnesses. The prosecutor will also show physical evidence like documents, pictures, and other exhibits.

Then the defense goes
After the prosecutor finishes presenting their case, your lawyer may call witnesses to testify and present evidence disproving the prosecutor's case against you and supporting your side of the case. The prosecutor can cross-examine your witnesses by asking them questions. Then your lawyer can re-examine your witnesses.

Then there is a chance for rebuttal
Once your lawyer has presented all your witnesses, the prosecutor may call more witnesses to rebut and contradict any new information or evidence brought up by your witnesses. The judge may also allow your lawyer to call rebuttal witnesses to respond to the prosecutor's rebuttal witnesses.

The judge will give the jurors instructions
The judge will instruct the jury on the laws they must follow. The jury must find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict you.

Then the lawyers will give closing arguments
The lawyers will give closing arguments summarizing the evidence and testimony. They will try to persuade the judge or jury to decide the case in favor of their side. The prosecutor goes first, then your lawyer gives their closing argument. After that, the prosecutor can respond to your lawyer's argument. Either side can choose not to give a closing argument.

Then the jury will deliberate
After closing arguments, the court will instruct the jury to go to the jury room and begin discussing and deliberating on the case.

The jury's verdict must be unanimous for you to be found guilty or not guilty. The verdict must be given in open court with you present, unless you choose not to be there. 

Possible verdicts are:

  • Guilty (of all charges, some charges, or a less serious charge)
  • Not guilty (of all charges or some charges) 
  • Not guilty by reason of insanity or some other legal defense
  • Guilty but mentally ill

If you are found guilty at trial or plead guilty, you can choose to be sentenced between 2 and 45 days after your conviction. You can choose to be sentenced sooner. You can choose to be sentenced on the day you were convicted or pleaded guilty. Or you can choose to be sentenced after 45 days if you need more time to prepare.