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Restitution in Utah Criminal Defense

In addition to the financial burden of paying restitution, complete payment of restitution and other financial obligations owed in a Utah criminal case can also be a prerequisite to obtaining an expungement, 402 reduction, or pardon. Limiting the total amount of restitution initially ordered as part of the court's sentencing order can have significant benefits. If you are facing criminal charges in Utah, contact us today to see how we can help.

Are there limits on what a court can order as restitution in a Utah criminal case?

The Utah Court of Appeals' 2017 opinion in State v. Gibson addressed one of the limits to what a sentencing court can order as restitution in a criminal case. Specifically, the court looked at the issue of whether a criminal sentencing court can order a defendant to pay restitution for damage or loss resulting from conduct that was not admitted by the defendant or conduct for which the defendant was not convicted.

Gibson involved a theft of approximately 200 feet of coper wiring and accompanying brass fittings from a electric power substation. The power company put the total loss suffered as a result of the theft (including lost materials and other property damage) at around $13,000. The person who committed this initial theft was never identified, but in a plea agreement entered into with the prosecutor, the defendant admitted that on the day following the original theft he had sold a matching length of copper wiring and fittings to a metal scrap dealer, having reason to believe the items had been stolen, and that the metal was valued at less than $500. At sentencing, the district court ordered the defendant to pay the full $13,000 as restitution.

The Court of Appeals in Gibson was asked to determine whether the district court was legally justified in ordering the defendant to pay $13,000 in restitution to the power company even though he only admitted responsibility only to selling less than $500 worth of stolen property, not the initial theft of the copper wiring and fittings. The controlling statute on this issue is Utah Code 76-3-201(4)(a) which states that “when a person is convicted of criminal activity that has resulted in pecuniary damages, in addition to any other sentence it may impose, the court shall order that the defendant make restitution to the victims, or for conduct for which the defendant has agreed to make restitution as part of a plea agreement."

The district court reasoned that even though it was not known who committed the initial theft, the defendant’s selling stolen materials was “as effectual.”  However, Utah’s restitution statute, criminal activity for which restitution can be ordered is limited to conduct for which the defendant was convicted (by plea or by verdict) and “criminal conduct for which the defendant admits responsibility to the sentencing court.” In State v. Mast, 2001 UT App 402, the court affirmed both that 1) “a defendant cannot be ordered to pay restitution for criminal activities for which the defendant did not admit responsibility, was not convicted, or did not agree to pay restitution,” and 2) when determining whether a defendant has admitted responsibility, the sentencing court must not make inferences about the defendant’s culpability, but must focus on admissions made by the defendant. Responsibility must be “firmly established, much like a guilty plea.” In Gibson, the defendant did not admit responsibility for the initial theft.

The State argued on appeal that under Utah’s consolidated theft statute the defendant’s guilty plea to theft by receiving stolen property was enough to establish his answerability for the initial theft because all forms of theft are considered a single offense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning instead that although the statute allows a prosecutor to present a general theft offense and prove any type of theft under the consolidated theft statute, it does not allow a conviction of one type of theft to carry with it admission or responsibility to all forms of theft.

The State additionally argued on appeal that the defendant's sale of the stolen materials is the but-for cause of the power company's losses. The courts may use a “modified but-for test” when determining the extent of an appropriate restitution award, and when analyzing a but-for causation question, the court must “inquire as to what would have occurred if the [defendant] had not engaged in the…conduct.” The State argued in essence that the original theft would not have occurred "but for" the secondary market for stolen metals that was supported by the defendant's sale of the stolen property. Again, the Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning instead that because the initial theft of materials from the power company had already occurred, the after-the-fact sale of stolen property by the defendant could not be the "but for" cause of that initial theft.

The Court of Appeals held that the restitution award ordered by the sentencing court was not justified. The defendant had admitted only to selling stolen property valued at less than $500. Because he did not admit responsibility for the initial theft and did not otherwise agree to a higher amount of restitution, the restitution order exceeded “that prescribed by law.”

Finding a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Utah

Utah Criminal Lawyer in Salt Lake CityFacing criminal prosecution in Utah can be intimidating, and the consequences of a felony or misdemeanor conviction can be serious. If you are charged with a crime, the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney can be key to ensuring that your rights are protected. Contact us today to see what the right attorney can do for you.


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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

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In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
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Stephen W. Howard, PC

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