Editorial: Gand jury panel ready to lend an ear in Summit County
September 25, 2015
Let’s say you know someone is breaking the law but you are afraid to report it. There could be lots of reasons: The suspect has the power to harm you or holds a leadership position in your community or could in some other way retaliate against you for making a public accusation. In those instances, the U.S. legal system offers a special process to seek legal counsel in complete confidence.
Next month, on Oct. 8, a panel of judges will make themselves available, in a private setting, to hear from regular citizens who believe they have evidence of criminal activity. If the judges believe the evidence is credible, they have the power to empanel a grand jury, which then determines whether to move forward with a trial.
According to Summit County Attorney Robert Hilder, a retired judge who served 10 years on similar panels, while grand jury investigations are extremely rare — he saw only two during his tenure — it is still an important avenue for redirecting complaints to the proper channels.
When deemed necessary, the grand jury process can provide vital protections to vulnerable individuals. One of the two instances Hilder referred to involved Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped when she was 14 years old. After her rescue, a grand jury investigation made it possible to bring the perpetrator to trial without putting a child through the trauma of a preliminary hearing.
It is important to note grand juries do not handle civil complaints (i.e. when an individual, business or government has a legal dispute with another party over payment or delivery of a product or services). Those cases must go through the regular court system.
The grand jury process, instead, offers an additional avenue to bring criminal wrongdoing to light. It is especially useful when there is cause to investigate organized corruption and/or accusations against law enforcement officials. In criminal cases, charges are usually filed by the state on behalf of victim or victims.
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While actual grand jury investigations may be rare, the state makes its panel of judges available on a frequent and regular basis. The panels show up in one of the state’s eight court districts every four months and will listen to complaints from anywhere in Utah. In fact, Hilder says, citizens often prefer to testify outside of their own communities to ensure greater privacy. After meeting at the Summit County Courthouse on Oct. 8, the panel will move on to Ogden in January, to Cedar City in May and Manti in Oct. and then Moab in Jan 2017.
Utah’s grand jury process is an important part of the democratic process. To the extent that citizens are aware of it and willing to come forward, the grand jury screening panel can help to expose criminal behavior that could otherwise go unreported.
According to a press release from the courts, those who have a complaint need to make an appointment by Sept. 28 or the panel will be called off. To schedule a time to meet with the judges, call (801) 578-3800.