What Legal Rights Does a Criminal Defendant Have in Utah?

As we wrote about in a previous article, criminal defendants have the option to “plead the Fifth,” which means choosing not to testify at their own trial.  Choosing not to testify is an important Constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment, but it certainly isn’t the only legal right to which criminal defendants are entitled.  Being criminally charged is a jarring experience, but understanding your rights can help to put your mind at ease as you and your loved ones prepare for the legal proceedings to come.  In this article, Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson will explain the various rights protecting criminal defendants who stand charged with felony and/or misdemeanor offenses, not only in the state of Utah, but throughout the United States.

The Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments

Criminal defendants’ legal rights are collectively known as “due process.”  Due process is an absolutely fundamental concept which provides the basis for the U.S. criminal justice system as our society knows it.  Due process protects defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty, from being harmed by illegal government actions.  For example, prosecutors cannot build a case on inadmissible evidence, or prosecute the same individual twice for the same crime (which is known as double jeopardy).

Without due process in place, defendants would be vulnerable to egregious violations of their Constitutional rights as U.S. citizens.  In fact, due process clauses are addressed in not one, but two portions of the Constitution: the Fifth Amendment, which shields against self-incrimination by protecting defendants from being forced to testify against themselves, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which deals with citizenship.

The due process clause contained in the Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  (In fact, you can see where this clause references both double jeopardy and “pleading the Fifth.”)

The due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

All criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to due process, regardless of whether they are being charged with petty retail theft (shoplifting), aggravated murder, or anything in between.  The severity of the charges do not impact the defendant’s basic rights as a U.S. citizen.

custody dispute modify plan

What Are My Rights as a Defendant?

Criminal defendants are protected by an array of legal rights, some of which we mentioned a little earlier in this article.  Don’t worry about memorizing your rights, or figuring out what to do or not do during trial or any preceding hearings such as your arraignment: your defense attorney will make sure that your rights are not violated, and will coach and prepare you for each stage of the process.

First and foremost, remember that you are presumed innocent.  The burden of proof falls upon the prosecutor, who must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Under the Sixth Amendment, you have the right to be tried by a jury (unless you are being charged with a misdemeanor offense carrying less than six months of jail time).  That may not sound like much of a “right,” but in fact, the jury selection process is packed with  important safeguards to ensure you are judged fairly and without prejudice.

The jury must be comprised of neutral and unbiased jurors, so the court screens potential jurors with questions to ensure they are capable of participating in a fair trial.  Then, your lawyer will ask the potential jurors even more questions, called “challenges for cause,” which are also designed to eliminate biased jurors.  Additionally, your lawyer can make a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which are similar to challenges for cause but do not have to be justified with an explanation.

Furthermore, all jurors must agree on whether you are guilty or innocent.  Rule 21(b) provides that unless the jury is in unanimous agreement with regard to the verdict, you cannot be found guilty.  If the jury has mixed opinions, it’s called a “hung jury,” and the judge will declare a mistrial.  When this occurs, the prosecutor may attempt to try you again before a different jury.  (This does not amount to double jeopardy, because no verdict was ever reached.  Double jeopardy protects defendants who were decisively found not guilty from being tried a second time.)

The Sixth Amendment also gives you the right to confront any witnesses against you.  That means you (or your attorney) can challenge any testimony provided by the prosecutor’s witnesses.  Furthermore, under the Sixth Amendment you also have the right to a speedy trial so that you are not held in custody indefinitely.

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Utah, or if one of your loved ones was arrested, you need a knowledgeable and aggressive criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights while strategically fighting the charges against you.  To start discussing your case in a free and completely private legal consultation, call attorney Darwin Overson right away at (801) 758-2287.