Sentencing Guidelines in Utah

Once someone has pleaded guilty or been found guilty of a crime, sentencing will soon follow which depends on many factors specific to the case as well as Utah law and the sentencing guidelines stated by the Utah Sentencing Commission.

Lesser offenses

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When someone breaks the law, the crime committed could be a minor offense such as an infraction, a more significant offense like a misdemeanor, or even a serious felony offense. What each crime is classified as along with the possible punishment for breaking that specific law can be found in the Utah State Code. Infractions such as most traffic violations do not result time behind bars, just a monetary fine no greater than $750. Misdemeanors are offenses that are considered worse than infractions, but not as severe as a felony and can result in fines and jail time. According to Utah Courts, a misdemeanor offense is broken down into three categories that include:

• Class C misdemeanors such as driving without registration or negligent cruelty to animals, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine up to $750;
• Class B misdemeanors including prostitution and harassment, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine up to $1,000;
• Class A misdemeanors such as stalking and reckless endangerment, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine up to $2,500;

Major offenses

A felony is the most severe of crimes and could result in a fine and prison. Felonies are categorized into four groups:

• Third-degree felonies including habitual wanton destruction of protected wildlife and felony discharge of a firearm with no injuries, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of no more than $5,000;
• Second-degree felonies such as burglary of a dwelling and possession of child pornography which carry possible prison terms of 1 to 15 years in prison and a possible fine of $10,000;
• First-degree felonies for example rape and sodomy on a child, punishable by 5 years to life in prison and a fine no greater than $10,000;
• Capital felonies such as murder can result in either life in prison with or without parole and even the death penalty.

Sentencing guidelines and matrix

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Although many crimes have already been categorized along with appropriate punishment decided by the Utah Legislature, there are many other factors that are taken into account before a judge will decide on a sentence. The Utah Sentencing Commission has issued a manual complete with guidelines and a matrix that can be followed to ensure that sentencing is fair for each specific case. According to the Utah Sentencing Commission Philosophy Statement, “The Sentencing Commission promotes evidence-based sentencing policies that effectively address the three separate goals of criminal sentencing:

• Risk Management [imposing a punishment or penalty that is proportionate to the gravity of the offense and the culpability of the offender.]
• Risk Reduction [appropriate identification and reduction of an offender’s individual criminal risk factors.]
• Restitution [repayment of damages to the community or to victims resulting from an offense]”

According to Utah Courts, the guidelines and matrix designed by the Sentencing Commission takes into account things such as:

• “Aggravating factors” such as significance of injuries and the relationship between the offender and victim;
• Enhanced penalties such as if a deadly weapon is used or if the offender is a repeat offender; and
• “Mitigating factors” that can include the offender’s behavior since the crime or a clinical evaluation on their mental health during the crime.

According to the Utah Sentencing Commission, “Utah law provides the basis for the sentencing and release of criminal offenders. ( . . . ) The guidelines are an attempt to further structure decision-making relative to sentencing and release, yet still retain the flexibility to deal with individual cases.” Use of these guidelines along with the Utah statutes should ensure anyone facing criminal charges is treated fairly and individually. To ensure this, it is best to have legal representation before and during sentencing hearings.

Jury Selection Process

When a case is to be tried by a jury, there are different steps of jury selection that must be completed before the trial will begin.

Juror pool

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The first step in selecting a jury is the random pull of potential jurors from a pool of local residents. If someone has registered to vote, filed state taxes, or obtained a local driver’s license they are automatically added to this juror pool. The potential juror is then sent a qualification form to ensure they are eligible to serve on a jury. Once qualified, they are then scheduled to be on-call during a set period of time. If a defendant’s case is to be tried during that time, those on-call may be asked to appear at the courthouse for further jury selection.

Voir dire

The next step in jury selection is called voir dire which translates loosely to “speak the truth”. A panel of potential jurors that are on-call will come to the courthouse to be questioned by the trial judge or the attorneys handling the case. These questions could include:

• Does the juror know anyone involved in the case?
• Has the juror or a family member ever been involved in a similar type of case?
• What does the juror do for employment?
• What kind of hobbies does the juror have?
• Is there any reason why the juror shouldn’t be selected for the jury, such as personal biases?

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Through these questions, both sides have the opportunity to challenge for cause or ask a juror to be removed if they feel they are not qualified for that specific case. After challenges for cause are complete, the attorneys are also peremptory challenges. According to Utah Courts Rule 47, “Each party shall be entitled to three peremptory challenges.” Peremptory challenges allow each side to dismiss a juror without giving a reason. Perhaps they feel the juror would side too much with the opposing side.

Trial begins

Once the jury selection is complete, the trial can then begin. While it may be intimidating for a defendant to be judged by other people in the community, there are times when the defendant’s legal counsel feels a jury of peers is the best option to ensure a fair trial. For more information on what cases are best tried by a jury, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

All Have the Right to a Trial by Jury

Having a trial by jury is a Constitutional right bestowed upon all persons facing jail time with criminal charges.

Sixth Amendment rights

Trial by Jury

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According to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, “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”.

The default

Although everyone is entitled to a trial by jury, all too often cases are tried by a single judge instead of a panel of peers. Utahcourts.gov states “Depending on the type of action, a case may be tried before a judge (bench trial) or before a jury with a judge presiding. “ The option of a trial by jury is there for everyone, but defendants without proper counsel may be unaware of that right at first and miss their window of opportunity.

Constitutional rights with an expiration

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Photo by: Chris Betcher

A trial by jury is available to those facing jail time due to felonies or misdemeanors; however depending on the charges, this Constitutional right expires if not claimed in a set amount of time. Rule 17 of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure explains that:

“(c) All felony cases shall be tried by jury unless the defendant waives a jury in open court with the approval of the court and the consent of the prosecution.

(d) All other cases shall be tried without a jury unless the defendant makes written demand at least 14 days prior to trial, or the court orders otherwise. No jury shall be allowed in the trial of an infraction.”

Trial by jury or judge?

A trial by jury is an option for all defendants facing serious charges, but when is the right time to take advantage of this Constitutional right? Ultimately it is up to the defendant to decide whether a trial by jury is the right call for their case but it is always recommended to be represented by a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney to ensure that the best decision for a trial is made.