Following is a summary of some of the most basic, but also most important, rights that each person has under both State and Federal constitutions.
Your Rights in Court
- The Right to Know what charges are filed against you, the potential penalties you may face, and the nature and substance of the evidence against you. This right is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but it is fundamentally necessary under both procedural and substance due process protections.
- The Right to Counsel, to have an attorney represent you, to advice and counsel with you in preparation for court, and to answer your questions both while preparing for court and also during court processes as may be needed.
- The Right to a Fair Trial, by an impartial jury. Utah juries in state district courts or justice courts are generally smaller than juries the the federal court system. A 12-person jury is only required in capital (death penalty) cases. Most felony trials in Utah require only an 8-person jury. Class A misdemeanors are given a 6-person jury. Class B and C misdemeanors use only a 4-person jury.
- The Right to Confront and Cross-Examine Witnesses who are testifying at trial. The confrontation right generally requires that the witnesses testify in person, and that the person charged has the opportunity to see and observe witnesses as they testify. Cross-examination of adverse witnesses provides an opportunity to test a witness’ credibility and to clarify testimony or put testimony in its proper context with additional information.
- The Right to Call Witnesses to testify for the defense, both to testify about their own knowledge of the case and also to rebut or discredit (impeach) witnesses who have testified for the prosecution.
- The Right to Compel Witnesses allows a person facing criminal prosecution to use the court’s subpoena power to compel a reluctant witness to come to court and to testify. This right also includes, if necessary, the ability to ask the court to issue a warrant authorizing law enforcement officers to take physical custody of a witness who refuses to comply with the subpoena, and to physically bring that witness before the court to give testimony.
- The Presumption of Innocence means that the mere existence of charges against a person is not a fact that a jury can consider in reaching their verdict. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution. The prosecution must present evidence to support each element of each charge filed in the case. And the evidence must be sufficiently persuasive to convince each and every member of the jury at a level of certainty that is beyond a reasonable doubt.
- The Right to Appeal errors that occurred during the trial process or at sentencing allows a person to review the court proceedings that led to a conviction and to ask a higher court to reverse or correct such errors. (In cases beginning in a justice court in Utah, the appeal is in the form of a ‘de novo’ hearing or trial in the district court.)
This is only a summary of some of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to each individual who faces criminal prosecution in Utah. Although these rights are constitutionally protected, enforcement of these rights is not always automatic. A good criminal defense attorney can help to remind prosecutors and judges of the importance of these rights, and can help ensure that our legal system follows through on the guarantees promised by our constitutions.