Last Updated: June 29, 2023

Criminal Defense in Utah Justice Courts

Utah’s justice courts are restricted to handling misdemeanors at the class B or class C level, plus infractions. Any class A misdemeanor or felony charge must be filed in district court. Municipal (city) justice courts are generally restricted to hearing only cases arising within their own city borders. Some counties have a justice court with…

Utah’s justice courts are restricted to handling misdemeanors at the class B or class C level, plus infractions. Any class A misdemeanor or felony charge must be filed in district court.

Municipal (city) justice courts are generally restricted to hearing only cases arising within their own city borders. Some counties have a justice court with county-wide jurisdiction, but these courts normally only handle cases coming from unincorporated areas of the county or from cities that do now have their own justice court.

Because any misdemeanor charge brings a potential risk of jail time, prosecutions filed in justice courts carry with them the right to be represented by an attorney.

Penalties in Justice Court

Although Utah justice courts are restricted to hearing only lower-level criminal cases, the penalties and punishments can still be substantial.

  • Class B Misdemeanors are mid-level misdemeanors, but are the highest category of crimes that can be handled in a justice court. The maximum penalty for a single class B misdemeanor conviction is 180 days jail and a fine of up to $1,000 plus surcharges. Class B misdemeanors commonly filed in justice courts include DUI, drug paraphernalia, assault, criminal mischief, possession of alcohol by a minor, and retail theft.
  • Class C Misdemeanors are the lowest level misdemeanor under Utah law. They carry a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a fine of $750 plus surcharges.

Collateral Consequences of Conviction

Collateral consequences of a conviction can sometimes be more substantial than the actual penalty imposed by a justice court judge. A domestic violence conviction can restrict firearms rights. A DUI conviction can result in driver license suspensions. Other convictions may impact professional licensing – both getting a license and keeping a license.

Comparing Justice Courts and District Courts

A major difference between justice courts and district courts in Utah is the level of the offenses and the severity of the penalties. District courts in Utah are courts of general jurisdiction, and can handle the most serious felony charges with potential penalties that can include life in prison.

Appeals from Justice Court

A significant, but sometimes overlooked, difference between justice courts and district courts is the form and process of appealing the decision or case outcome. Because justice courts are not considered to be “courts of record” under Utah law, an appeal a decision, ruling, or verdict from a justice court commonly involves a “de novo” hearing or trial, where the issue, motion, or even entire jury trial is heard over again in the district court, without deference to the original judge’s decision.

Originally Published: June 29, 2023

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