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

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There are countless courtroom dramas on TV and Netflix. 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 assaultaggravated 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. The defendant will also be notified of their rights. A defendant has numerous trial rights, including the right to an attorney. Defendants also have the right to remain silent at their arraignment or preliminary hearing. Anything a defendant says at that time may be used against them at their trial, so it is crucial to think carefully before saying anything.

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

Arraignments for Misdemeanors

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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. At the arraignment, the defendant will be notified of the charges against them and their rights at trial. A defendant absolutely has the right to an attorney at their arraignment, and their attorney will best understand how they should plea. If you do not have an attorney to represent you at your arraignment, the court will allow you time to find an attorney. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court will appoint one for you.

It also crucial to your case that you understand your rights at trial as they are explained to you at your arraignment. If you are to defend yourself and protect your rights at trial, you must understand what those rights are and why they are essential. Protecting your rights is why you need an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney.

First Appearances for Felonies

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).

Similar to an arraignment for misdemeanor charges, the defendant at a first appearance will be informed of the charges against them and of their rights moving forward. The first appearance is different, however, because the defendant will not yet enter a plea. Instead, the court will schedule a preliminary hearing.

At a preliminary hearing, often abbreviated as “prelim,” the court will determine two important elements. First, the court will decide if there is sufficient probable cause demonstrating that a crime was in fact committed. Second, the court will determine if there is sufficient probable cause indicating that the defendant committed the crime. The judge at the preliminary hearing must find sufficient probable cause in both respects in order to hold the defendant over for trial.

Do not be confused by the court’s finding at a preliminary hearing. Just because the judge finds that there is sufficient probable cause against you does not mean you have been found guilty. The prosecutor still must prove their case against you beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

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. Sometimes it can sound like it is the police who are charging defendants with a crime. Often, we hear the police on TV and in movies say things like, “You’re under arrest for the charge of burglary!” But the police are not the ones filing those charges; it is in fact the prosecutors.

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

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.

A “no contest” plea has the same effect as a plea of guilty. However, this way, the defendant avoids an actual admission of guilt. Essentially, the defendant admits that the prosecutor will most likely win at  trial, but the defendant does not admit any guilt. On the other hand, an Alford plea may be used strategically by a defendant who maybe wants to take advantage of an opportunity for a plea agreement but does not wish to admit guilt. An Alford plea allows a defendant to avoid a trial where the consequences will be worse if they lose. For either an Alford plea or a “no contest” plea, the court has the power to reject the plea. An experienced attorney will help you determine what kind of plea is best for your case.

Entering a Plea for Felony Charges in Utah

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. The preliminary hearing must be scheduled for no later than 14 days out if the defendant is still in custody. However, the preliminary hearing may be scheduled up to 28 days out if the defendant has been released on bail.
  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. It is the duty of the prosecutor to present any evidence that would support a finding of probable cause from the judge. However, unlike at trial, the prosecutor does not have to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, they must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is guilty. 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.

As the defendant, you have a right to a preliminary hearing before you can be prosecuted at a trial. If you do not wish to go through a preliminary hearing for whatever reason, you may waive that right, and you will be automatically held over for trial. In many cases, going through a preliminary trial allows the defendant and their attorney to get a sneak peek at the strategy of the prosecutor. Knowing your opponent’s strategy is key to mounting an effective defense. However, you must discuss with your attorney what your best options are before making the decision to waive any rights. 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.

Entering a Plea for Misdemeanor Charges in Utah

For a misdemeanor offense, the pretrial process is a bit simpler and quicker. In a misdemeanor case, the defendant goes straight to arraignment without having a first appearance or preliminary hearing beforehand. In both circumstances, the defendant will be informed of the charges against them. However, a defendant for a misdemeanor offense will enter their plea sooner than a felony defendant.

A misdemeanor arraignment is different from a felony arraignment in several ways. At a felony arraignment, the defendant does not enter a plea but is instead scheduled for a preliminary hearing. At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant enters a plea, and the next step by the court depends on what plea the defendant chooses to enter. If the defendant pleads not guilty, then a trial will be scheduled within a reasonable amount of time, but no more than 30 days out if the defendant is in custody. If the defendant pleads guilty, then they are immediately sentenced, and no trial is scheduled. If they plead not guilty, they are automatically held over for trial. For a misdemeanor offense, the defendant is not put through the rigors of a preliminary hearing, and a judge does not have to find sufficient probable cause to hold them over for trial.

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 Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer 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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