Natty Shafer Law

Utah lawyer for criminal and immigration cases

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Representing Yourself in Criminal Court: Part II, the Trial

When we left off in Part I, Jane Doe was getting ready for a trial after being accused of Theft of Services. She decided to represent herself because she does not think she needs a lawyer; only guilty people hire lawyers and she is sure the jury will see she is innocent.

Jane does not sleep very well the night before the trial. She shows up to court looking tired, she does not think as sharply as normal, and she is feeling the stress.

Jane’s two friends arrive at court that morning, which is fortunate because she is not sure if she properly served them with their subpoenas. The friends, John Jones and Sally Roe, ask Jane where they are supposed to go. Jane is not sure and spends ten minutes talking to the clerk, instead of calming her nerves. Eventually, they are asked to wait outside the courtroom until they are called.

Jane Doe has never been very good at public speaking, but she plans to keep it simple. The judge tells her that she can help select the jury and he explains how. The prosecutor does most of the actual selection. They all look the same to Jane. A few minutes later, the judge swears in the jury.

The Trial
The prosecutor gives a fairly short opening statement, but the prosecutor does make Jane seem dishonest. The judge tells Jane she may give an opening statement. Jane starts to tell her side of the story. Halfway through the opening, Jane tries to show the jury a copy of her credit card receipt showing she paid for her meal. The judge stops her and tells her she cannot introduce evidence at this time. Jane gets flustered and cuts her opening statement short.

The prosecutor starts her case by calling the restaurant server to testify. The server seems friendly, but he does make it sound like Jane personally stole money from him.

Jane then has her chance to cross-examine the server. Jane asks him if he saw her pay. He says he did not. She tries to show him her credit card receipt. The prosecutor objects and after some confusing discussion between the prosecutor and the judge, the judge allows Jane Doe to show the receipt to the server. The server denies having ever seen the receipt before, and Jane does not ask any follow up questions.

After the cross-examination, the jurors are confused about what Jane was trying to prove. All they know is that the server thinks he was not paid, and Jane has something that might be a receipt, but they do not know what is on the receipt.

The prosecutor calls the police officer. Jane does not see anything damaging about the police officer’s testimony. The judge interrupts the officer and asks Jane if she would like to make any objections. Jane cannot think of any. The police officer explains that in his experience it is very common for thieves to come up with a plausible explanation for their behavior. The prosecutor rests her case.

The judge tells Jane that she can call any witnesses if she so chooses. Jane calls friend #1, John Jones, to the stand. He begins to testify that he was at the restaurant with Jane for lunch. At this point, the prosecutor interrupts and asks the judge if the witness has been advised of his right to remain silent. The judge asks the witness a few questions and asks if he understands that he too could be charged with Theft of Services. At this point, John becomes less helpful answering Jane’s questions. By the end of his testimony, he has made it clear that he paid cash for his meal, but he did not know what Jane Doe or Sally Roe had planned.

The prosecutor is mostly happy with John’s testimony, and during her cross-examination she just uses John’s testimony to make absolutely clear that Jane was present at the restaurant and she ate food.

Sally then enters the courtroom. The prosecutor asks the judge to once again make sure that the witness understands that she could be prosecuted for any incriminating statements. Sally is similarly scared by this news. She decides not to answer any questions at all. The judge excuses Sally.

Jane then takes the stand on her own behalf. Jane does make some good points, but unfortunately she buries them in the middle of a rambling story filled with “ums” and “uhs.” By the time she mentions to the jury that she had paid for her portion of the meal, half of them are not listening. She repeatedly tells the jury that she is an honest person and that she would never steal; each time Jane starts to say this, the prosecutor objects. The judge asks her politely to keep to the facts and to avoid giving her opinion. This flusters Jane and she is not sure what she is allowed to say. She forgets to testify that she has a receipt for her share of the meal.

The prosecutor keeps her cross-examination short. She makes it clear to the jury that Jane was at the restaurant. She also gets Jane to admit that the full cost of her meal was not paid when she left.

The prosecutor tells the jury that it is very important that everyone pay for the services they use. It is part of living in a civilized society and Jane needs to be punished. The prosecutor says that she could have also prosecuted Sally and maybe even John, but Jane is here right now. It is the jury’s job to find Jane “guilty” of the charge.

Jane does not give a good closing. She mentions again that she is not a bad person and that she is so sorry that the restaurant was not paid, but it was not her fault.

The jury is completely confused as to why Jane thinks she should be found “not guilty.” The jury deliberates for about 20 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict. The judge asks Jane if she is ready to be sentenced. She says she is. Fortunately, the judge does not impose any jail time, but he does impose a fine and makes Jane go to a class about theft. Jane now has a criminal record which can be researched by anybody.

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Representing Yourself Against a Criminal Charge: Part I, Pretrial

Rimmer: If only I’d hired a smarter lawyer, instead of the brain-dead, pompous, stupid-haired git I ended up with.
Lister: You defended yourself!
Rimmer: Yes, and I don’t need reminding of that, thank you very much.

Red Dwarf

In the United States, you are allowed to represent yourself in a criminal trial, but it is almost always a bad idea. To help illustrate what it might look like when a person tries this in Utah’s courts, I am going to take readers through a hypothetical Utah case. Assume Jane Doe has been accused of Theft of Services under Utah Code 76-6-409. Jane is an intelligent businesswomen, but she has never dealt with the criminal justice system before.

Jane’s Side of the Story
Jane had lunch with two of her friends at a local Utah cafe. Normally, each one of Jane’s friends pays for their own food. Jane needed to return to work earlier than her friends. She went to the cashier and paid for her portion with her credit card and returned the remainder of the bill to her friends. A couple days later, a police officer tracked her down via her credit card address. The officer informed Jane Doe that she is being charged with Theft of Services for not paying the whole bill. After talking with her friends, she determined that friend #1 paid in cash, and friend #2 thought friend #1 paid for both of them. Somehow $17 from the lunch did not get paid, and the restaurant called the police. The police officer contacted the only person in the group the restaurant could identify.

Jane’s First Day in Court
The police officer told Jane Doe that she will have to go to court. Jane shows up for what turns out to be her arraignment. She asked for the morning off of work, but she hopes she can put this scary episode behind her once she explains to the judge what happened. After waiting through a couple hours of miscellaneous court proceedings, the judge finally calls Jane’s case. The judge wants Jane to enter a plea and to set the next court date. Jane has been waiting all morning and has no intention of simply saying “not guilty.” She thinks that if she explains what happened, the judge will simply dismiss the case.

Unfortunately, the judge cannot dismiss the case at this point. Even if the judge believes Jane, it is still the prosecutor’s decision about whether or not to dismiss the charges. The judge tries to find a polite way to tell Jane, “I don’t care.” (Judges want to avoid giving that impression. Everyone accused is entitled to their day in court.) Jane’s judge knows that regardless of what Jane says, he cannot yet dismiss the charges. After interrupting Jane’s story, the judge manages to help Jane to understand that she will have to come to court again.

Pretrial Conference
A month later, Jane once again asks for time off work and comes to court. Surely now the justice system will understand her point-of-view! Maybe. The prosecutor talks to Jane, and the prosecutor does have the power to drop charges. However, most prosecutors have heavy case loads and have to make snap judgments. At best, the prosecutor read the police files that morning and knows what the police officer wrote. At worst, the prosecutor merely looked at the charges. Regardless, most prosecutors generally do not dismiss the charges without something in return.

For our hypothetical, the prosecutor offers to reduce the charge from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor, and promises to recommend to the judge that Jane serve no jail time. At this point, Jane is completely mystified as to why she should plead to anything. Although it was her friend’s meal, Jane would gladly pay the restaurant $17 to make the charges go away, but the prosecutor refuses to drop the charges. Jane considers accepting the plea to avoid further hassle, but she decides she does not want to have a theft charge on her record. She is confused and angry that no one is listening to her.

Jane waits another hour to speak to the judge. She implores the judge to listen to her story, but the judge still does not have the power to dismiss the charges. The judge tells Jane that she can set her case for a trial and that will be her opportunity to tell her side of the story. Jane says that is what she wants. The judge asks her if she wants a jury trial or a bench trial. Jane does not know which she would prefer. She tentatively asks for a jury trial.

The judge sets a trial date . The judge tells Jane there will be a final pretrial conference one week before the trial. Jane does not know what that means. The judge tells her that it is customary in Utah for both parties to meet about a week before the trial to meet. It is an opportunity to discuss jury instructions and make sure everyone is ready.

The judge gives Jane Doe an outline of how the trial will proceed. He asks Jane if she will want anyone to testify at her trial. Jane says she thinks she wants her two friends to testify. The judge tells Jane that she has the power to subpoena witnesses if she wants. He advises her it is not too late to hire an attorney and then excuses Jane. Jane spends the next 45 minutes talking to the court clerk trying to figure out how to subpoena her friends.

Final Pretrial Conference
Jane once again must take time off work for her court date. She arrives for the final pretrial conference, and the prosecutor tells Jane that she talked to the restaurant manager. The restaurant is very “active” in pursuing criminal charges, according to the prosecutor. The restaurant is adamant about discouraging someone else from trying to “dine-and-dash.” Jane says she paid for her meal and would gladly reimburse the restaurant for her friend’s meal if they will drop the charges. The prosecutor shrugs her shoulders and says that her hands are tied.

The prosecutor asks Jane if she looked over the proposed jury instructions. Jane says she thinks they look fine. They then speak to the judge, who asks if everyone is ready to go forward with the trial. The prosecutor says she is ready. Jane says she is not sure; she has never seen a real trial before. The judge again explains the procedure of how the trial will go, but gives very little in the way of trial advice.

Jane has missed parts of three days from work and is frazzled. She is no closer to winning her case.

Up next in Part II: the Trial.