What is the Principle of Criminal Lenity?
There is a long standing principle in Criminal Defense that if a new law is passed which reduces a criminal penalty that a criminal defendant gets the benefit of that law so long as he has not been sentenced. This means that if you are charged with a third degree felony in January. In February the legislature makes the crime a class B misdemeanor. In July you plea guilty or are found guilty by a jury. When you are sentenced you can only be convicted of a class B misdemeanor with its attendant penalties.
What if the Utah Crime is Completely Decriminalized?
If a crime is decriminalized it would naturally follow that the defendant could not be convicted of the crime, right? That issue was recently presented to the Saratoga Springs Justice Court, but the Court held that the principle of lenity does not apply if the crime has been completely decriminalized.
In Saratoga Springs people were being charged with class B misdemeanors if their dog got loose. A class B misdemeanor carries up to six months in jail. The Saratoga Springs saw the injustice in making people criminals just because their dog got loose and so changed the law in July 2009 to make loose dogs mere administrative violations. Nonetheless, the City continued prosecuting people for crimes after the law had passed. When the City was challenged the court ruled that the principle of leniency does not apply because Utah case law does not address the principle of lenity in conjunction with decriminalization – it only addresses it in conjunction with reducing a criminal penalty. Well isn’t the lowest reduction of criminal penalty no penalty at all?
The Saratoga Springs Justice Court’s ruling is confusing at best and not in line with Utah law.
Utah Criminal Defense Lawyers Who Fight for You
If you have been charged with a crime in Utah it is important that you hire a Utah criminal defense attorney who understands the principle of criminal lenity. Laws are changing all the time and the penalties associated with crimes in Utah change often as well. It may be that the crime with which you were charged was decriminalized or has a reduced penalty. If so, we’ll find out and do everything we can to give you the benefit of the new law even if that means appealing your case to the Utah Supreme Court.
Call our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at 801.413.1753 or 888.337.3235 for a free consultation. We’ll be able to tell you what penalties are currently associated with the crime with which you are charged. You can also email us by clicking here. Contact us anytime.