Where the Process Begins
The criminal justice process begins with a report that a crime has occurred. Law enforcement officers investigate these reports and forward the information that they gather to the Salt Lake District Attorney’s Office (in Salt Lake County).
After reviewing the information forwarded to their office by law enforcement, the DA’s office determines if there is enough evidence to file charges. If it is determined that there is sufficient evidence, the prosecutor will file an “information” and warrant with the Court – formal documents that charge the defendant with one or more crimes.
Once a defendant is charged with committing a crime, they can either be ordered to appear in Court via a “Summons”, which orders a party to appear in Court on a specific date, or they can be arrested.
If the defendant is arrested, they may stay in jail until the trial and sentencing are complete. In these cases, the defendant is entitled to have the proceedings scheduled as quickly as possible. However, it is more often the case that the defendant is released from jail, either on their own recognizance, or after posting bail. Prior to release, the defendant will promise to appear in Court on the appointed day. To be notified of defendant’s release from jail, register with VINE.
The “First Appearance” is the first time a defendant is required to appear in Court on a criminal charge. If the defendant is found to be unable to afford to hire an attorney, the Court appoints a lawyer to represent the defendant. These lawyers are often referred to as public defenders.
If a defendant cannot post bail, they are entitled to a “Bail Hearing.” The prosecution and defense can present evidence at this hearing. Ultimately, the judge decides whether the defendant is entitled to bail and, if so, how much bail is warranted.
Before a felony case can be set for trial, the prosecutor must first prove there is sufficient evidence for the criminal process to continue. The proof is made during a “Preliminary Hearing”. The amount of evidence required at this hearing is less than what is required at a trial. If the evidence is sufficient, the judge will “bind” the defendant over for trial. The defendant can waive a preliminary hearing. Preliminary hearings are not held if the defendant is only charged with a misdemeanor.
The arraignment can be held immediately after the preliminary hearing or scheduled for another day. At the arraignment, the defendant enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”. If the defendant pleads “not guilty”, the judge will set a date for a pretrial conference. If the defendant pleads “guilty”, the judge will set a date for sentencing.
There may be hearings scheduled for the attorneys to argue pre-trial legal motions. The Court may rule on various issues that relate to how the trial will be conducted and the admissibility of evidence. See Rape Shield Law.
In each case, there may be numerous “pre trial conferences”, in which attorneys may discuss trial issues or plea negotiations.
The “trial” is where the prosecution is required to prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. A judge presides over the trial, including; guiding the selection of a jury, ruling on the admissibility of evidence, deciding who is allowed to stay in the court room during the trial, and instructing the jury on which laws apply to the case.
The jury listens to the evidence presented by both “the State”, or the DA’s office, and the defense. The jury will then deliberate and return to the courtroom once they have reached a consensus and find the defendant “guilty” of some or all of the charges or “not guilty”.
If the defendant is found “guilty”, the judge may remand them into custody right away or allow the defendant to remain free on bail, and then set a date for sentencing. If the defendant is found “not guilty” they are free to leave and the court process is complete.
A finding of “not guilty” does not necessarily mean that the jury believed that the defendant was innocent. However, it does mean that the evidence presented did not convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty of the charges.
Prior to sentencing, particularly in the case of sex crimes, a judge will order a “pre-sentence investigation”. Generally an Adult Probation and Parole agent will conduct the investigation and will contact the defendant, the victim, and any other interested parties. The agent will then prepare a report and submit it to the Court with a recommended sentence. Sometimes a formal mental health evaluation is completed as well. The judge may or may not follow the recommendations made by the agent.
For felony cases, the sentence can be prison, jail, or probation. Prison sentences in Utah are typically for indeterminate times, such as 1 to 15 years. Due to the undetermined length of the typical sentence, the Board of Pardons and Parole will ultimately make the decision on how many years the defendant will actually serve of their sentence. Defendants cannot be sent to prison for misdemeanors.
Probation & Parole
Often a defendant is sentenced to probation, particularly on a first offense. While on probation, the defendant is required to abide by a list of rules – such as having no contact with the victim. If the defendant violates the terms of their probation, they may be brought back to Court to answer to the judge.
Parole is similar to probation, except that it is for defendants who have served a prison sentence and have time remaining on their sentence. After being released from prison the defendant is placed on supervised parole. If the defendant/parolee violates a condition of parole, they answer to the Board of Pardons rather than to the judge.
Once a defendant has successfully served their sentence, whether incarcerated or on probation or parole, the criminal justice process is completed.