What Happens if a Prosecutor Lies or Withholds Evidence in Utah?

Most prosecutors are ethical individuals who are committed to upholding the law.  Unfortunately, a small number of unscrupulous prosecutors abuse their power in order to skew trials and obtain convictions.  In this article, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will go over some common examples of prosecutorial misconduct, and explain what can happen to the defendant in a Utah criminal trial if unethical behavior is uncovered.

What Are Some Examples of Prosecutorial Misconduct?

If you’ve ever been called to jury duty, you already know from experience just how rigid court procedures are.  The American legal system is built on a foundation of strict and complex rules and standards, and criminal law is no exception.  The American Bar Association, or ABA, is an important part of this framework.

While the ABA does not write legislation or discipline attorneys, it does play a vital role in the creation and maintenance of ethical standards for hundreds of thousands of lawyers across the United States.  These ethical standards, which are collectively known as the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, are expansive in scope, encompassing issues ranging from fees, to the duty toward a client, to advertising rules.

The Model Rules are bolstered by ABA Criminal Justice Standards, some of which are devoted exclusively to the function of the prosecutor in a criminal case.  Listed below are just a few examples of the many ABA standards for prosecutors – violations of which are examples of misconduct.

Utah State Capitol Building

  • Prosecutors must avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Prosecutors must not make any public statements that could potentially create bias or swing the outcome of a case.
  • If a prosecutor knows that another lawyer has engaged in misconduct, he or she has a duty to report it.
  • Prosecutors are not allowed to deliberately misrepresent information to the court.
  • Prosecutors must not create unjustifiable, illegitimate delays in the criminal justice process.
  • Prosecutors must not use illegal methods to obtain evidence.
  • Prosecutors must avoid discouraging communication between a witness and the defense attorney.
  • Prosecutors must allow expert witnesses to form and present their own opinions, free from influence.
  • Prosecutors must disclose all evidence to the defense as early as possible.
  • Prosecutors must not suppress, withhold, or otherwise avoid exculpatory evidence. (Exculpatory evidence is evidence which aids the defendant, while evidence that points toward guilt is called inculpatory evidence.)
  • Prosecutors must not communicate privately with jurors, which could create bias against the defendant.
  • Prosecutors must not attempt to “discredit or undermine” a witness who is testifying truthfully.
  • All witnesses must be given a fair and neutral interrogation, and the prosecutor must not resort to witness intimidation.

Some other examples of misconduct include:

  • Engaging in racial profiling.
  • Sexual harassment or abuse of a witness.
  • Permitting a witness to lie under oath when the prosecutor knows that the witness is not being truthful. This is a criminal offense known as perjury, or police perjury when it involves law enforcement.
  • Aiding or abetting police brutality or a false arrest.

Ethical Rules for Attorneys in Utah

scales of justice in courtroom

The Utah judiciary also has its own set of Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as Rules Governing the State Bar, which are respectively found under Chapter 13 and Chapter 14 of the Judicial Council Rules of Judicial Administration.  For instance, Rule 4.1 under Chapter 13 mandates “truthfulness in statements,” while Rule 3.4 mandates “fairness to opposing party and counsel.”

Of particular importance for defendants is Rule 8.4 under Chapter 13, which addresses misconduct.  This rule explicitly prohibits the following six acts:

  1. Disobeying (or trying to disobey) the Rules of Professional Conduct. This extends to convincing another lawyer to disobey the Rules.
  2. Committing a crime which reflects poorly on the attorney’s “honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer,” i.e. a crime which involves “violence, dishonesty, breach of trust or serious interference with the administration of justice” (such as assault, homicide, or obstruction of justice).
  3. Doing anything that involves “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” (such as embezzlement or other white collar crimes).
  4. Doing anything that would interfere with a fair trial by creating bias or prejudice against the defendant (or in favor of the alleged victim).
  5. Saying or implying they can pull strings with a government agency in order to get favorable results.
  6. Intentionally helping a judge in a way that violates any laws or any rules for lawyers.

If prosecutorial misconduct occurs, the charges may be dismissed, the sentence may be reduced, or the conviction may be reversed.  The judge may order a new criminal trial for the defendant.  The prosecutor may be disciplined or, in extremely rare cases, prosecuted and/or sued.

The bottom line is that prosecutorial misconduct has no place in any courtroom.  All defendants, no matter how great or minor their alleged crimes, are fully entitled to due process, which is ensured by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  Criminal defendants have legal rights, which your criminal defense attorney will work hard to protect and uphold.

If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor or felony in Salt Lake City or the surrounding area, it’s extremely important to take immediate action.  To schedule a free, completely confidential legal consultation with an experienced Utah criminal attorney, call Darwin Overson right away at (801) 758-2287.  Darwin is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is ready to make emergency visits to jails and holding centers.