Justice Courts, or revenue courts as their critics lovingly call them, for better or worse are here to stay. That in mind, here’s some tips on how to make it through misdemeanor courts without getting shortchanged on your rights like some of the folks in this week's cover feature.---
If you’re not guilty, don’t plead guilty: This seems like a no-brainer, but the biggest trouble defendants get into, is just wanting to get the ordeal of going to court over with by simply pleading out. Often people think that if they plead guilty and then explain themselves to the judge they can get a better sentence. Maybe, maybe not. The better route, even if it means coming to court a second time, is to plead not guilty. It will likely mean you’ll get to have a one-on-one meeting with a city prosecutor to explain your side of the story. Odds are the prosecutor will then lobby the judge on your behalf for some kind of reduced penalty or fee. If it’s not what you like, take it as far as trial if you need to.
Know your rights if you are going to plead guilty: Remember if you plead guilty, you're giving up a lot. So before you plead remember: The burden of proof is on the state to find you guilty. By pleading guilty you waive the right to a trial where you can perhaps be heard before a jury of your peers, a trial where you can call witnesses and cross-examine the state’s witnesses. Also don’t forget that if you want to appeal a judge’s decision the process is much more difficult if you’ve already pleaded guilty.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a public defender: If there’s any chance you could face jail time, ask about a public defender. The rule of thumb is that if you have any amount of jail time hanging over your head and you can’t afford private legal defense, then you have the right to a court-appointed attorney. You may not qualify, but ask for one regardless. You should be given an affidavit of indigence to fill out and submit to the judge. If you’re not sure if you qualify don’t be discouraged from at least filling out an affidavit. Also don’t forget that if you’re denied a public defender, you can also appeal that denial.
Show the judge you’re trying to do better: Let’s face it, chances are, you screwed up. But if you want to show the judge that you’re trying to sin no more, come to court with proof you’re trying to remedy the situation. If you’re cited for not having renewed your license, don’t wait for the judge to tell you to get it renewed at your court date. No matter what the situation always bring to court the best evidence—preferably written documentation—that you did no wrong or you’re trying to fix the situation you were cited for.
If you feel the judge’s conduct is unprofessional report it: If you feel a judge did a rush job on your case and was either unprofessional in conduct or worse, short changed you on your rights as a defendant, report the incident to the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission. While the record of the incident will be in question since justice courts aren’t officially recorded and transcribed, making the complaint is important, because the Conduct Commission will at the least, investigate, and perhaps even cite or reprimand judges for their conduct.