What is the Court Hearing Where the Defendant is Formally Charged with a Crime and Enters a Plea?

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

There are countless courtroom dramas on TV and Netflix, like the recent adaptation of the O.J. Simpson case.  These programs often focus on criminal trials for dramatic purposes, which creates an exciting story, but doesn’t give an accurate depiction of the process before trial.  In real life, there are multiple hearings before a trial ever begins, each with a different purpose.  Salt Lake City DUI lawyer Darwin Overson explains the initial stages of the criminal court process in Utah, with a special focus on the stages at which the defendant is notified of the charges and enters a plea.

When in Utah’s Court Process is a Defendant Notified of the Charges Against Them?

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Movies and TV shows are meant to entertain, so they’re allowed to stretch the truth and bend reality.  However, if you’re looking for factual information, Hollywood isn’t a great source to turn to.  Films often make it seem as though criminal charges are all about trials, but in reality, there’s much more to the court process.  A case never goes straight from arrest to trial, because there are some important questions, procedures, and preparations that need to be dealt with first.

To give one example, the defendant is going to need to be notified of the charges before trial takes place.  There’s a big difference between assault, aggravated assault, assault against school employees, and assault against police officers – and that’s only one example.  There are numerous crimes in the Utah Criminal Code – some of which, like “mayhem,” are completely unfamiliar to most people – and each has unique, specific definitions and penalties.

So how and when will the defendant be notified?  The answer depends on whether the charge involves a felony or misdemeanor offense.

If the defendant has been charged with committing a misdemeanor, he or she will be notified at a hearing known as the arraignment.  At the arraignment, the judge will read the defendant something called the “information,” which is a form filed by the prosecutor describing the offense the defendant has been accused of.  Arraignment is the first stage of the Utah criminal court process when the charges involve a misdemeanor crime.

If the defendant has been charged with committing a felony, he or she will be notified of the charges at a hearing called the first appearance, which is not part of the court process in misdemeanor cases.  In either situation, notification is one of the very first steps in the court process, regardless of whether it occurs at a first appearance (for felonies) or arraignment (for misdemeanors).

Keep in mind that prosecutors are the only people who can file charges.  The victim of an alleged crime can notify the police, but after that point, it is up to a prosecutor to determine whether the case should be pursued, and if so, whether it should be charged as a felony or misdemeanor.  There are some offenses that can be charged as either, while other offenses are always felonies or always misdemeanors.  A charge can sometimes be reduced to a lesser offense, but that does not occur until plea bargaining, which takes place later in the process.

When Does a Defendant Enter a Plea in a Felony or Misdemeanor Case?

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So far, we know that arraignments deal with misdemeanors, while first appearances deal with felonies.  However, there’s another important difference between these two types of hearings: the plea.

Defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors are required to enter a plea at their arraignment.  The plea is usually “guilty” or “not guilty,” but occasionally, a defendant will either plead “no contest” or enter what’s called an Alford plea.  Alford pleas and pleas of no contest share two features in common: neither involve an admission of guilt, and both are sometimes rejected by judges.

Defendants who have been charged with felonies do not enter a plea at their first appearance.  Instead, a few other steps come first:

  1. In addition to notifying the defendant of their charges at the first appearance, the court sets a date for a second hearing, which is called the preliminary hearing.
  2. At the preliminary hearing, the court reviews the evidence to determine whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant could be guilty, and therefore, to continue with the case.  A preliminary hearing can have one of two outcomes:
    • If there is no probable cause to show that (1) a crime occurred, and (2) the defendant may have committed the crime, the judge will dismiss the case
    • If there is probable cause, the defendant will be scheduled for arraignment, where he or she will enter a plea.

In short, defendants in felony and misdemeanor cases both enter pleas at arraignment, but felony cases have a few extra steps preceding the arraignment.  In a felony case, the process goes:

  1. First Appearance – The defendant is notified of the charges.
  2. Preliminary Hearing – Probable cause is reviewed.
  3. Arraignment – The defendant enters a plea.

In a misdemeanor case, the defendant goes straight to arraignment without having a first appearance or preliminary hearing beforehand.

Trust a Salt Lake City Criminal Defense Attorney with Your Case

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Utah, you need an experienced attorney on your side.  To speak to a Park City criminal defense lawyer,  West Jordan criminal defense lawyer, or West Valley City criminal defense attorney, contact the law offices of Overson Law at (801) 758-2287 for a free legal consultation.

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