Salt Lake Criminal Defense Attorney - Clayton Simms

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Aggravated Murder Charges for Utah Teacher Who Shot Husband’s Girlfriend

A Utah teacher has been arrested for aggravated murder after she shot and killed the girlfriend of her ex-husband while the teacher’s three year old twins watched in horror.

In the presence of children

Photo by: RONg

32 year old Chelsea Cook, a teacher at Skyridge High School in the Alpine Utah district was arrested after she opened fire on 26 year old Lisa Williams who was dating Cook’s ex-husband. Cook came to her ex-husband’s apartment in Midvale, Utah to bring medicine to one of her three year old twins who were in the care of their father and his girlfriend, Williams. After delivering the medicine, Cook let herself inside the apartment uninvited where Williams was decorating the Christmas tree with the two toddlers. Cook locked herself in the bathroom and refused to leave. When she finally emerged, she went to her jacket and retrieved a firearm. She then pointed the weapon at Williams and opened fire. Following the shooting, Cook went to her two children who were present during the traumatizing incident while her ex-husband attempted to give first aid to Williams. Cook then made her way again to her jacket and was physically restrained by her ex-husband until police and emergency crews arrived. Cook was then arrested while Williams was transported to the hospital where she later died from her injuries.

Aggravated murder

Cook was arrested for aggravated murder, which carries more severe penalties than murder. Murder, which is described as “. . . [intentionally or knowingly] causing the death of another person is a first-degree felony, punishable by life in prison and a $10,000 fine. Aggravated murder is also done intentionally or knowingly but with other factors that make the crime more serious. Some of these factors or elements may include when the homicide:

• took place in a jail or prison;
• occurred during a robbery, rape, sexual abuse, arson, kidnapping, or other serious offense;
• was committed by someone who was already convicted of murder;
• was committed by someone with a criminal history of aggravated assault, kidnapping, rape, felony discharge of a firearm, or other crime listed in Utah Code 76-5-202 (1)(j);
• prevented a witness from testifying or otherwise “distrupt[ed] or hinder[ed] any lawful governmental function.

In the case of Cook, she opened fire on Williams while her ex-husband and two small children were also in the room. This “. . . knowingly created a great risk of death to a person other than the victim and the actor” as stated in Utah Code 76-5-202 which enhances her crime of murder aggravated murder. Aggravated murder is punishable as a first degree felony with life in prison or a capitol felony if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

Premeditated or crime of passion

It is unknown if Cook planned on killing Williams or if it was a crime of passion after seeing her children and ex with another woman. She was carrying a weapon, but so are many residents throughout Utah. Did she in fact go to the apartment with the plan to kill Williams or did she completely lose it after arriving to see someone else living her life, happily making Christmas ornaments with her children. A crime of passion or heat of passion occurs when someone feels immense feelings such as rage and reacts violently. Many times crimes of passion occur between romantic partners especially when someone feels betrayed perhaps by a cheating partner. Cook and her ex-husband were divorced, but even strong feelings as a mother feeling the loss of her children to another woman could have pushed her over the edge, leading her to brutally remove the person standing in the way of her children. Crimes of passion and other crimes that occur when the individual is not in the right mind do not go unpunished, especially in the state of Utah. They can however, lead toward leniency regarding punishments which for Cook, could mean the difference between life and death.

Automobile Exception and Warrantless Searches on Private Property in Utah

Utah residents who have their vehicles searched by police should know their rights within the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception and how to avoid warrantless searches on private property.

Fourth Amendment

Photo by: Drew Stephens

The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” While this amendment protects people by ensuring their private property is not searched without a warrant, there are some allowances for warrantless police searches that may arise. One such allowance is the known as the automobile exception.

Automobile exception

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment came about in 1925 during the 13 year alcohol prohibition when a bootlegger named George Carroll was under investigation for transporting and selling alcohol. Carroll had offered an undercover police officer alcohol, yet did not go through with the sale. Later Carroll was spotted driving down the highway and officers, who assuming Carroll was transporting alcohol, pulled him over and searched his vehicle where prohibited alcohol was located. Carroll tried to fight the charges, stating he had been illegally searched. The court noted that because officers had probable cause to search the vehicle and due to the fact that a motor vehicle could “. . . be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the arrant must be sought”, a warrant was not necessary. Other allowances were eventually added to the automobile exception allowing warrantless searches of vehicles that are in police custody as well as searches of vehicles that aren’t at risk of being removed from the location.

Vehicle searches at home

Photo by: Yngve Roennike

When a vehicle is being searched by law enforcement, Utah residents may wonder if their garage, a nearby yard, or any area of their property may also be at risk of being searched. Unless a warrant is issued specifying otherwise, the automobile exception does not allow law enforcement to search the area surrounding a vehicle if it is on private property. In fact, the automobile exception doesn’t even allow officers to enter onto a person’s property to do a vehicle search. In Collins V. Virginia (2018) Virginia resident Ryan Collins was suspected of being in possession of a stolen motorcycle after a picture of a motorcycle matching the description of the stolen one was seen on Collins’ Facebook page. Officers went to Collins’ home and observed something under a white tarp in the driveway. Without a warrant or Collins’ permission, officers entered onto Collins’ property and looked under the tarp. The stolen motorcycle was there, and Collins’ was arrested. After appealing his conviction, The Virginia Court of appeals stated that “the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”

Ways around a search warrant

Officers are not permitted to enter a home or its curtilage to search a vehicle or the surrounding area, but there is nothing stopping them from asking permission to look around. It is even permissible to enter the property and knock on the front door. While a request to search may appear to be innocent or by contrast intimidating, it is merely a simple way for law enforcement to get around obtaining a search warrant. Utah residents are encouraged to be cordial when officers request warrantless search but to exercise their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. For more information related to legal charges sustained during a warrantless police search, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney.

Marital Violations in Utah

Utah has some well-known laws regarding marital violations, yet there are others that may surprise even long-time residents.

Offenses against the Family

Photo by: Abhishek Jacob

Utah is known to be a family-friendly state and as such has certain laws in place to protect families by criminalizing “Offenses against the Family” as described in Chapter 7 of the Utah Criminal Code. This chapter includes laws pertaining to abortion, failure to support a family, sale of children, as well as marital violations.

Marital violations

Many of the listed marital violations found in Utah Criminal Code are understandably punishable by law, however there are some that are notably dated. Bigamy, child bigamy, and incest are all felony marital violations that are noted by the general public as being punishable criminal offenses. The other two sections listed as marital violations pertain to adultery and fornication-two areas that may not be viewed by everyone as being criminal in nature.

Adultery

According to Utah Code 76-7-103 “A married person commits adultery when he voluntarily has sexual intercourse with a person other than his spouse.” While most agree with this definition of adultery, many are shocked to hear that it is against the law in Utah. That section regarding marital violations goes on to note that “Adultery is a class B misdemeanor” which Utah Courts state is punishable with a county jail term of “up to six months in jail [and] up to $1,000 fine or compensatory service.

Fornication

Photo by: Pete Birkinshaw

The following section goes one step further by not only punishing unfaithful spouses, but consenting adults who consummate their relationship prior to marriage. 76-7-104 states: “Any unmarried person who shall voluntarily engage in sexual intercourse with another is guilty of fornication. Fornication is a class B misdemeanor.” This law which was enacted in the 1973 General Session was likely approved by a generation where such actions were abhorrable.

Socially unacceptable, not criminal

Just because something seems wrong, does not mean it is necessarily criminal. While most Utah residents frown upon cheating spouses, not all agree that couples should save themselves for marriage. Some issues are better left for couples to decide for themselves.