Utah Justice Courts handle infractions, Misdemeanor B, and Misdemeanor C level cases. Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, West Jordan, West Valley City, Taylorsville and many other sizable incorporated cities in Utah have their own justice court. In addition, some counties, such as Salt Lake County, have their own justice court to handle Misdemeanors Bs and below in the unincorporated areas.
Because these are the lower-level crimes, many people decide to handle their case themselves in justice court (called being “pro se”). It’s always your right to proceed pro se, but you should remember that even a justice court conviction can have serious consequences on your driver’s license, future employment, or even your student loans.
Contact me if you’d like to discuss your case with a defense attorney who practices in Utah justice courts. It’s much easier to achieve a result you can live with the first time around, and much harder (or impossible) to go back and contest a conviction after it’s done. You don’t want to be filling out a job or housing application 5 years from now and saying to yourself I really wish I would have handled that case differently.
Also, keep in mind that court fees and fines for a justice court case can easy reach over $1000, and considering the fact that sentences for crimes involving drugs or alcohol often include mandatory treatment, which frequently costs many more hundreds of dollars, hiring an attorney to effectively handle your case could save you money in the short term. Contact me for a personalized quote and discussion of your case.
Here’s some special features of Utah Justice Courts that you should know about:
The Prosecutors Can “Amend” Your Charge to an Infraction
If you’re indigent, the state must provide you with an attorney for any case in which you face the possibility of jail time (I.E. Misdemeanor C and above). Also, any charge for which you face jail time of 6 months or more gives you the right to a jury trial (I.E. Misdemeanor B and above). So here’s what happens: So that the government can skip the hassle of providing you an attorney or holding a jury trial, justice court prosecutors will sometimes “amend” your charge down to an infraction, meaning that you cannot be sent to jail for a conviction on that charge.
For example, let’s say you’re charged with Reckless Driving, a Misdemeanor B. When you go to your first court date, you could say “I’m pleading not guilty, and I can’t afford an attorney, so I would like the court to appoint one for me, and I demand a jury trial.” The prosecutor could then say “Hold on there. The thing is, Judge, we’re amending this charge to an infraction.” The judge will then say, “Sorry, since you are no longer facing the possibility of jail time, you do not get a free attorney or a jury trial. Best of luck to you.”
In some ways, having your case amended to an infraction is good. Obviously, you can’t be sent to jail even if you are convicted or plead guilty. That’s good. The bad part is the collateral consequences are still there. It can still affect your driver’s license; it can still go on your record. When you’re stopped at the Canadian Border or you’re at a job interview years later, you’re left trying to explain, “yeah, I was found guilty of Reckless Driving, but it was amended to an infraction!” You can imagine the blank stares this might receive in response.
You Have the Right to a “De Novo” Trial in District Court
One of the nice things about justice court is that, after your case is finished, you get a de novo appeal. “De novo” means new. Basically, you get a do-over in the big courthouse down the street. Same prosecutor, same charges, new judge, new trial.
This is much different than a normal appeal. Usually, after you have your trial in court, the only way to appeal the result is to argue that someone made a crucial mistake of law at some point. But for a de novo appeal to District Court, you don’t have to prove someone made a mistake, you just get to try again for a better result.
While attorneys may argue about whether or not Utah’s justice court system is good for criminal defendants on the whole, this is one thing that most defense attorneys agree is positive–getting the proverbial “two bites at the apple.” If you take a plea-deal in justice court, though, you very well might waive your right to this de novo appeal, so be careful of that. Before accepting a plea-deal, it’s well worth your time to at least get a free consultation.