Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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Sorcery and the Law

You think it’s just memorizing a bunch of spells and throwing them at him, like you’re in class or something? The whole time you’re sure you know there’s nothing between you and dying except your own—your brain brain or guts or whatever…

—Harry Potter, chapter 15, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Most people have a decidedly magical view of lawyering. Speak the right Latin phrase and—presto!—the judge rules in your favor. A police officer fails to give you a Miranda warning and—abracadabra!—the charges are dismissed.

The law is magic.

Lawyers are wizards.

People ask me for ways to handle their own case. For myriad reasons, this is a bad idea, but the biggest reason is that most people have no idea what to expect in court. They do not even know the reason for their next court date, let alone what they are supposed to do once they get there. They say, “if you just told me what to do, I’ll save myself a lot of money and you can save yourself the the hassle.” If only it were so simple. This is the simplistic view that Harry Potter says people have about magical duels. There is more to lawyering than just muttering a Latin incantation to a judge, and nothing is simple once you get to court.

In truth, it would be easy to give a naive client a plan A for when they get to court, but they will also need a plan B, C, and D. Whenever the client is throwing “incantations” about the law, the other side is throwing them right back at you. Anyone unprepared will lose a case that they could have won. Nearly any case can be lost through bad lawyering. There are many rules of the courtroom that are not forgiving to the uniformed. For example, if someone fails to object in a timely manner, the law considers the objection waived. Miss a crucial objection and it will sink the case and its appeal, too. Knowing how and when to make objections is something that takes years of study and practice.

People often think that because they are innocent they do not need a lawyer. A proper resolution to a criminal case can take months or even years. This is no less true for those who have a good case for defense and are factually not guilty of the crime. There is no way to quickly teach someone how to fight a case.

People think they can show up to the arraignment, and (Perry Mason style) the judge will see how wronged they have been, and the charges will be magically dismissed. Even if you have a good issue for suppression, you have to know when and how to raise the issue. In my experience, laypeople are bad at even identifying issues for suppression and do not know what will happen even if they win. Sometimes, a prosecutor can proceed with charges without the piece of suppressed evidence.

For so many reasons, it is best to hire a lawyer. Let them do their magic and fight the battle for you.

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The Slow Wheels of Justice

It can take a significant period of time for a criminal case to resolve. The initial appearance in court can be weeks after an arrest, and then there may be several more dates after that (preliminary hearings, pretrial conferences, and suppression hearings are among the more common pretrial court appearances in Utah). Each court date can be weeks or months apart, meaning months or years can pass between an initial arrest and the final disposition of the case.

Crime shows on TV often say, “delay is always good from the defense.” I am not so sure. That may be the case in certain types of cases that require a lot of witnesses the government needs to contact and ensure they remain willing to testify. Most cases have just a few witnesses, which usually include government employees, such as the arresting officer, and the prosecutor can easily contact all of them. Many cases have just one civilian witness and some cases, like a DUI case, might involve no civilians. Government employees are often paid their normal salary to testify, especially if it is part of their work description as lab technicians or law enforcement officers.

Many prosecutors are in no particular hurry to resolve cases. The more populated counties in Utah have multiple prosecutors in each department and a different prosecutor might handle each court hearing for an individual case. Prosecutors are evaluated on the outcomes of cases and not necessarily on how long it takes for each case to resolve. Consequently, a prosecutor has less incentive to hurry and close a case than to make sure each case sees a favorable outcome for the government; a prosecutor could get in trouble for giving a favorable settlement to the defendant, but prolonging a low profile case for many months is rarely going to be an issue for the bosses.

Defendants, on the other hand, have every reason to want a case to come to a close. The defendant is expected to appear at each court date, possibly requiring time off work. Each appearance involves some degree of stress because it is impossible to know what will happen in court. I try to reassure my clients about the most likely outcomes, but it is hard for people to stay positive in an unfamiliar situation. I have had some clients lose their motivation to fight any longer, particularly in misdemeanor cases. Often their lives have more or less remained unchanged after the arrest, but they are tired of the hassle of repeated appearances in court. (Unfortunately, many consequences of a misdemeanor conviction do not manifest until many years later.) For defendants who are in police custody, taking a plea deal will mean there is a definitive end to incarceration instead of endless court dates eroding morale.

A client has the constitutional right to decide whether or not to accept any given plea deal. A lawyer must abide by that decision, but I will encourage a client to keep fighting if I think it is in the client’s best interest. The bottom line: patience will help get the best outcome.

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On the Phrase ‘Not Guilty’

For at least a few people, there is an initial reluctance to say they are “not guilty” at an arraignment. They are not interested in going to trial and have hired a lawyer just to mitigate the damage. They feel it is dishonest to say they are “not guilty” when they are guilty, but, legally speaking, when people say they are “not guilty,” they are not necessarily asserting their innocence. It is a little more nuanced than that. Instead, it means that someone is putting the government to their burden of proof and making them prove everything that a charge entails.

A plea of not guilty can later be amended to a guilty plea, but the reverse is not true. Once a guilty plea has been entered, there are limited situations where a guilty plea can be undone. Even if the ultimate goal is to take a plea offer, a defense lawyer needs something to negotiate. A potential guilty plea often is the best bargaining chip.

Incidentally, saying “not guilty” does not have to be limited to courtroom settings. Interactions with police officers could also be an occasion for saying, “not guilty.” Whether it stems from a simple traffic stop or a more serious allegation, the phrase is different than an outright denial. There are numerous laws, covering many situations, which make it illegal to lie to police officers. The technical meaning of the phrase leaves open the possibility that someone is not actually denying the allegation. Some people find this more comfortable to say than asserting the right to silence, which they believe makes it sound like they are hiding something. Regardless of which option people choose, it is a good idea to choose one and let the officer know that they heard the question. Also, the Supreme Court has said that people must affirmatively assert their right to silence if they have not been arrested yet.