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Common Mistakes Made in Utah Criminal Cases

Defending against criminal charges in Utah often involves complex procedural and evidentiary rules, and can require in-depth analysis and application of statutes and case law. This page is intended to present information regarding common mistakes made by people facing criminal prosecution in Utah.

The best results for your case are most likely when you have an experienced Utah criminal defense attorney on your side. During his career, Stephen Howard has successfully protected the rights of thousands of clients facing charges ranging from murder to drug charges to white collar crime. Contact us today to schedule an initial consultation.

This page presents information on mistakes commonly made in Utah criminal defense cases. This information is not intended as legal advice. If you are facing criminal charges, contact an experienced criminal lawyer now. The following are examples of things you generally should not do:

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Utah Criminal Cases

Pleading Guilty at Arraignment - Almost without exception, you should not enter a guilty plea at your arraignment hearing in a misdemeanor case.* Under Utah law, an arraignment hearing is the first court hearing in a  misdemeanor case. At the arraignment hearing, the judge will give you formal notice of the charges that are filed against you, and will ask you to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Even if you are in fact guilty of the charges filed against you, it is best to enter a not guilty plea at the arraignment hearing.

Entering a not guilty plea at arraignment is absolutely necessary to preserving your right to a trial. But even if you do not want to take your case to trial, pleading not guilty opens the door to negotiations with the prosecutor.

Negotiated resolutions could include a plea in abeyance agreement that would result in dismissal of the case, a probation recommendation, amended charges that could save your driver license or avoid other collateral consequences, a reduction in the level of the charge which could speed up the expungement process, or other negotiated agreements that could benefit you. By pleading guilty at an arraignment hearing, you lose the opportunity to have an experienced attorney review police reports, investigative materials, and other discovery information to determine what defenses are available and what strategy is likely to yield the best result.
On the other hand, by entering a guilty plea at an arraignment hearing, the only issue remaining for the court to decide is the harshness of the sentence to be imposed.

*An exception to this general rule may apply in circumstances where a defendant is mistakenly charged in a justice court with a misdemeanor that is subject to felony enhancement in the district court (e.g. a third DUI charge, or third shoplifting charge). In such circumstances, by pleading guilty in the justice court to the misdemeanor charge, constitutional double jeopardy protections may prevent a prosecutor from filing the enhanced felony charge in the district court. Consultation with a criminal defense attorney is strongly advised before you enter any guilty or not contest plea.

Not Hiring an Attorney - Felony charges are serious criminal charges, with potentially devastating consequences. Misdemeanor cases are less serious than felony charges. So it may be tempting to try to save some money by representing yourself if the charge is "just" a misdemeanor. But representing yourself on just about any charge more serious than a minor speeding ticket can be a big mistake.

Utah Criminal LawyerThe consequences of even a misdemeanor conviction can include substantial time in jail and thousands of dollars in fines. Some misdemeanor charges (e.g. DUI or shoplifting) are enhanceable - meaning that subsequence charges carry greater penalties, or could even be enhanced to a felony level. Many criminal convictions carry collateral consequences beyond the court case that can include losing a driver license, losing the right to possess or use a firearm, losing a professional license, and more.

When you are being prosecuted for a crime in Utah, the prosecuting attorney has likely handled hundreds or thousands of similar cases. In every case, the prosecuting attorney has earned a graduate level degree in law, which has required thousands of hours of study.  Prosecutors also participate in continuing legal education to keep abreast of continually changing laws. Unless you have that same kind of extensive training and a similar level of experience in the legal system, you will be at a severe disadvantage going up against the prosecuting attorney in court. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side can give you the best chance of success in your case.

Speaking to Police without a Lawyer - You have the right to remain silent if the police want to ask you questions. This right is so important, that the United States Supreme Court has declared that police MUST inform you of this right before conducting any custodial interrogations. While police may not be required to inform you of this right when you are not "in custody," you still have the right to request the opportunity to speak with an attorney before submitting to an interview or questioning by a police officer.

There are some circumstances where your case may be improved and your position strengthened by talking with a police officer during a pending investigation. But there are also great risks involved in choosing to talk with a police officer. In many cases, statements made by a defendant during an investigation turn out to be the prosecutor's strongest evidence of guilt.

Before you make a choice about talking to a police officer about possible criminal charges, you should consult with a Utah criminal defense attorney. Having good advice from an experienced criminal lawyer can be the best way to avoid seriously damaging your case.

Under Utah law, the only information a police officer can require you to give is your name. It is technically a class B misdemeanor to refuse to give a police officer your name upon request, assuming that the officer has a legitimate reason to detain you or to request your name. But beyond politely giving the officer your name, it is generally safest to refuse to answer any further questions without having the assistance and advice of an experienced criminal lawyer.

Giving Consent for a Police Search - Unless the police have a warrant, you are generally free to refuse a police officer's request to conduct a search. This freedom to refuse consent applies to a search of your home, your car, your person, or any other place or object over which you have control or for which you have a legitimate expectation of privacy.

Salt Lake Fourth Amendment LawyerSome people might choose to give consent because they honestly believe that they have nothing to hide. Consent in such circumstances can still be dangerous. Consider the driver of a vehicle who gave a ride to a passenger who accidentally dropped a marijuana pipe between the seats. Consider the grandmother whose grandchild, without permission, had been using her computer to download and view child pornography. Consider the father whose teenage son had, without his father's knowledge, left some stolen stereo equipment in the trunk of the family car. In each of these scenarios, the person may have had no reason to know about any of the alleged criminal activity. But by allowing the police to search their car, home, or computer, the person exposes himself to possible criminal prosecution for the actions of another individual.

Other people might be aware of the existence of some evidence of a crime, but be concerned that refusing to give consent to a police request to search would somehow make them look "guilty." While it may be true that refusing consent to search may make the police suspect that you are guilty of a crime, giving your consent only gives the police the proof needed to prove your guilt.

Sometimes, police may suggest that they will conduct a search whether or not you consent. A police officer may state that he will simply get a warrant if you refuse to consent. If you give consent under such circumstances, you may lose your ability to successfully challenge the constitutionality of the search in court under the Fourth Amendment. Declining consent protects your Constitutional rights and can preserve your ability to fight the case in court if needed.

Being Rude or Disrespectful to a Police Officer - You have the right to refuse to submit yourself to police interrogation. You have the right to refuse consent for a police search. But it is rarely if ever helpful to be rude or show disrespect to a police officer. In many cases, treating a police officer with courtesy and respect may actually work to your benefit.

Officers often have some discretion in what charges will be submitted to a prosecuting attorney for screening. In some cases, a police officer who has been treated respectfully by a suspect or defendant may choose not to screen some of the potential charges, or not to request that the prosecutor file an enhanced charge.

In the process of most criminal cases, the prosecution and defense will engage in negotiations regarding potential resolution of the case. In many cases, a prosecutor may ask the arresting officer for input as to how aggressively to pursue the case. An officer who has been treated with respect may be more willing to recommend leniency, whereas an officer who has been treated rudely may want the prosecutor to throw the book at the defendant.

Finally, police officers are people too. Most officers are good people who do their job to serve and protect the citizens and residents of their communities. That deserves respect.

Resisting Arrest or Fighting with a Police Officer - There are, unfortunately, times when police officers make mistakes or exercise poor judgment. If you believe that you are being wrongfully arrested, if you believe that a police officer is violating your Constitutional rights, the place to challenge the police officer's conduct is in a court of law - not on the street.

Exercising your Constitutional rights is important. But arguing with or using physical force against a police officer is a recipe for disaster. You may find yourself facing additional criminal charges for interfering with an officer, resisting arrest, or assault on a peace officer.

Choosing a Utah Criminal Defense Lawyer in Salt Lake City

Choosing the best Utah criminal defense lawyer for your case is one of the most important decisions you will make as you proceed with your criminal defense case. Based in Salt Lake City, Stephen Howard has successfully protected his clients rights in cases ranging from murder to DUI to white collar crime. After representing thousands of clients during his career, he has the experience necessary to help you get the results you need.

Contact us today to schedule an initial consultation with Utah criminal attorney Stephen Howard.


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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

Call now to arrange for a confidential initial consultation with an experienced and effective Utah criminal defense lawyer.

In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
In Davis County, call 801-923-4345.

Stephen W. Howard, PC

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