Utah Reaffirms Its Liberal Preliminary Hearing Standard

Binding Over a Case at Preliminary Hearing is Easy

Preliminary hearing a rubber stamp for police action.
The Utah Supreme Court recently reiterated how easy it is for the state to get a bind over order at a preliminary hearing.

The preliminary hearing is a “probable cause” hearing that requires the state to put on evidence that would permit the judge to bind over the case for trial, that is, to find there is enough evidence to move forward with trial. This usually requires the prosecutor to call witnesses, introduces documents, pictures, videos and other tangible items, and otherwise provide the court with proof of the crime. The judge then considers all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the state and decides whether the evidence is enough to present to a jury to determine guilt or innocence.

Prior to 2001 the amount of proof a prosecutor had to present to the court in a preliminary hearing had to be enough “from which the trier of fact could conclude the defendant was guilty of the offense as charged.” See State v. Anderson, 612 P.2d 778, 783 (Utah 1980) (emphasis added), overruled by State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 16, 20 P.3d 300. This placed a pretty high burden on the state and required prosecutors to really present the meat of their case to the judge.

In 2001 the Utah Supreme Court repudiated that standard and altered it to the very low standard required today, which is that the prosecutor need only provide enough evidence “to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it.” State v. Clark, 2001 UT 9, ¶ 16, 20 P.3d 300

Reaffirming the Clark Standard

The Utah Supreme Court again took up the issue of what evidence is required in a preliminary hearing. Some confusion arose because two cases – Maughn and Anderson – contained some language which could lead one to believe that a preliminary hearing requires evidence sufficient to justify a conviction. In response, the Utah Supreme Court stated:

“But to avoid any potential confusion, we now make clear that neither case altered our liberal bindover standard—rather, ―at both the arrest warrant and the preliminary hearing stages, the prosecution must present sufficient evidence to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it, not a reasonable basis for a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.” State v. Schmidt, 2015 UT 65.

So…bad news if you’re a criminal defendant: it’s really easy for the state to get you bound over for trial.

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