Four Ways Utah’s Legal System Differs From Depictions on TV

If you’ve watched any TV in the last 30 years, chances are you’ve seen dramatizations of the legal system played out.

The writers of these shows get a few things right. Suspects get arrested, they go through a trial to determine their guilt, and a jury figures out whether or not they are guilty.

However, there are several ways these shows misrepresent the legal system. They are important to understand in case you are ever caught up in it, whether you’re being sued, arrested, or put on a jury.

Trials Aren’t As Common In Real Life

There are actual numbers that show how many cases make it to trial in Law & Order. A website called Overthinking It looked at every episode from all 20 seasons and divided the outcomes into groups. The greatest number were episodes that resulted in someone being found “guilty” after a trial at just over 35%. The second highest — by a few percentage points — were cases that ended with a guilty plea.

In reality, guilty pleas make up about 95% of felony convictions. That means only about 5% of criminal cases actually go to trial. That is not necessarily the most entertaining outcome, which is why you see a lot more trials on TV than usual.

Cases Don’t Go To Trial Quickly

One of the most egregious examples of this is an episode of Suits. Harvey Specter, one of the main characters, ends up defending his limousine driver after getting into an accident with a taxi driver. It’s just a fender bender, but the taxi driver ends up suing.

On the same day of the accident, a judge moves the case forward. Word-for-word, the judge says, “Court finds a reasonable suit here. Trial starts tomorrow.” Sure enough, there is a trial the next day, complete with a jury.

In reality, trials — even civil trials like this one — don’t happen that quickly. In Utah, there are several steps that have to be taken, and that’s if the case escalates enough for a trial at all.

For Utah criminal trials — which the attorneys at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat are experts in — the process depends on the type of crime you are being charged with. If you are being charged with a misdemeanor A or a felony, there is often a preliminary hearing that is scheduled during the first court appearance. In that hearing, the judge will determine whether there is enough evidence to go to trial. Attorneys from both sides will then have time to file various motions before the trial even begins.

If you are being charged with a misdemeanor B or C, the process is similar, except you would tell the court your plea during arraignment, and there is no preliminary hearing if the case does go to trial at all.

Surprise Witnesses and Evidence Aren’t Common

A trope in many TV shows is that one side has a surprise witness or a piece of evidence that the other side did not see coming. In reality, the system is set up so that this does not happen.

There is a process called discovery. As defined by the American Bar Association, it is “the formal process of exchanging information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they’ll present at trial.” This prevents a phenomenon known as “trial by ambush,” where one side overpowers the other by providing evidence without giving time for the other side to come up with answering evidence.

The Guilty Aren’t Always The Ones At Trial

In shows like Law & Order, the implication is that when a defendant is found guilty, they aren’t just guilty by law, they are factually guilty.

In reality, police officers make mistakes. While they often arrest guilty people, there are times where that is not the case. Meanwhile, some people who are found guilty are sometimes innocent.

The problem with framing the people as factually guilty is it might influence how jurors think about the case. When a defendant is at trial, the entire mentality behind the system is that the person is innocent until proven guilty. In a perfect world, that is what jurors should assume. Only when presented with overwhelming evidence, should they decide that the defendant is guilty.

This creates a special challenge for attorneys like the ones at Brown, Bradshaw & Moffat in Salt Lake City. If you are ever in trouble with the law, their job is to help jurors why you are innocent. If you plead guilty, they are the ones in your corner who do what they can to ensure the best outcome possible.

Luckily, they have an excellent track record with over two decades of experience. They would love to help you when you need it. Call (801) 532-5297 for a free consultation.

Sources Season 1 Episode 5 “Bail Out.”

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