In criminal cases, the “venue” simply refers to the location where the trial and other hearings will be held. Rule 18 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that “the government must prosecute an offense in a district where the offense was committed,” and that “the court must set the place of trial within the district with due regard for the convenience of the defendant, any victim, and the witnesses, and the prompt administration of justice.” While venue selection isn’t up to the defendant, the defendant can seek a change of venue under certain circumstances. In this article, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain when and why a change of venue might be appropriate, and how the process works in Utah.
Different Types of Criminal Courts in Utah
The Utah judiciary defines a venue as “the particular county, city or geographical area in which a court with jurisdiction may hear and determine a case.”
However, because not all courts handle the same types of criminal matters, venue depends not only upon jurisdiction and geography, but also the type of charges which are being filed. Utah’s court system is made up of five different types of courts, each of which serves a different purpose as described below:
- Court of Appeals – Courts of appeals are also called appellate courts. When a defendant wants to challenge a sentence or conviction, he or she starts the process by filing a Notice of Appeal. Defendants who appeal are called appellants, while the party being challenged is called the appellee.
- District Courts – District courts have jurisdiction over Class A misdemeanors (which cannot be tried in justice courts) and all felonies, including murder, sex crimes, robbery, drug charges, and other offenses. District courts also handle family law matters, such as divorce and child custody.
- Juvenile Courts – Juvenile courts have jurisdiction over cases involving minors. While there are some similarities, juvenile courts follow very different rules and procedures than adult courts. For instance, juveniles cannot request a jury trial. If the charges are extremely serious, the juvenile may be tried as an adult.
- Justice of the Peace Courts – These courts, also known as justice courts, do not handle felonies or Class A misdemeanors. With regard to criminal cases, justice courts only have the authority to handle Class C and Class B misdemeanors, such as simple assault.
- Supreme Court of Utah – This is the highest court in Utah. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction if a defendant who was tried in district court wants to appeal an aggravated murder conviction or other first degree felony conviction.
(Utah also used to have city courts and circuit courts, which were eventually merged into today’s district court system.)
Why Would a Defendant Request a Change of Venue?
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, the following:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation…”
Not only is the right to trial by an “impartial jury” a protected right under the Constitution – it’s also necessary to ensure that innocent defendants do not fall victim to biased or prejudicial juries.
Toward that end, Utah jurors receive specific instructions for evaluating each aspect of a criminal case, such as evidence, objections, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Jurors even receive different instructions depending on which crime is being alleged. Jurors are also screened to ensure they will not be unfairly biased for or against a defendant.
Unfortunately, despite all of these protections, situations can still arise where jurors are not as neutral as they should be to guarantee a fair trial. If this type of scenario occurs, the defense may wish to request a change of venue for the benefit of the defendant. (In other cases, a change of venue may be appropriate for “the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice,” as provided by 28 U.S. Code § 1404.)
However, it’s not as simple as asking and receiving. In order for the change of venue to be granted, the defense must file a formal motion or petition explaining the reasons the change is being sought. The courts will not grant a change of venue unless one of the following criteria are satisfied under Utah Code § 78B-3-309:
- The county noted in the criminal complaint is improper.
- “There is reason to believe that an impartial trial cannot be had in the county, city, or precinct designated in the complaint.”
- The change would improve the “convenience of witnesses and the ends of justice.”
- All parties involved “agree that the place of trial may be changed to another county.”
If you’ve been arrested in Salt Lake City or elsewhere in Utah, you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side in court. To set up a free and private case evaluation, call attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.