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Entering a Guilty Plea Without a Preliminary Hearing

Jurisdiction of district court not conditioned on preliminary hearing
The Utah Supreme Court recently held that a preliminary hearing is not required to grant district court’s jurisdiction over a defendant’s entering a guilty plea.

State v. Smith – District Court’s Jurisdiction not Conditioned on Preliminary Hearing

The Utah Supreme Court recently handed down an interesting decision in State v. Smith, 2014 UT 33. The issue in that case was whether a district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to accept a guilty plea from a criminal defendant who has not either (1) has not had the benefit of holding a preliminary hearing; or (2) expressly waived his right to have a preliminary hearing.

In that case, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were charged with possessing methamphetamine. In an attempt to work out a deal that would allow them to not lose custody of their children, Mr. Smith agreed to plead guilty to a second degree felony and Mrs. Smith would only have to plead to a class A misdemeanor.  Mr. Smith entered his plea on the date his preliminary hearing was scheduled, but at that hearing he never waived his right to have a preliminary hearing. Subsequently, Mr. Smith regretted having entered a guilty plea and moved to withdraw his plea. When he showed up for his hearing on his motion to withdraw he withdrew his motion and instead asked to be sentenced. He was warned that being sentenced meant he would never have a preliminary hearing. He said he understood and was sentenced to 1-15 years in prison.

He appealed his decision and argued that the district court never obtained subject matter jurisdiction because he was never bound over for trial, which occurs through a finding of probable cause at the preliminary hearing or through a defendant’s waiver of a his right to have a preliminary hearing.  Since neither happened in Mr. Smith’s case he argued his guilty plea was void.

The Court of Appeals agreed, but the Utah Supreme Court did not.  The Utah Supreme Court found that under Utah’s current jurisdictional framework, the district courts have subject matter jurisdiction over criminal matters because the circuit court system was merged with the district court system. Prior to the merger, criminal informations were filed in circuit court and then the district court obtained jurisdiction after the circuit court held a preliminary hearing and bound the case over for the district court. With the merger of circuit courts, the district court obtains jurisdiction upon the filing of the information. Second, the Utah Supreme Court found that there is not statutory support that conditions the district court’s jurisdiction on the the holding or waiver of a preliminary hearing.

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