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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed slight change in state law could make it easier for county prosecutors to initially try their cases behind closed doors.
The House Judiciary Committee on Monday passed SB133, which changes the presumption for obtaining a grand jury from no to yes. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, now moves to the House. The Senate has already approved it.
Prosecutors seeking a grand jury must justify it before a five-judge panel. Under current law, the panel calls a grand jury if it finds good cause exists. The change would allow the panel to call a grand jury unless it finds good cause does not exist.
The bill calls for the change to expire in five years, giving legislators and the judiciary time to study its effects.
Defense attorneys say the subtle rewording would reshape how judges consider prosecutors' requests.
"This flips the rule on its head," said Jerry Salcido, of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "I think you're going to see more abuse by using the grand jury process."
In Utah, preliminary hearings are typically used in criminal cases to determine whether there is enough evidence for a trial. Those hearings are conducted publicly before a judge. Grand juries, which are made up of Utah residents, are held in secret.
Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said anyone who tries cases knows grand juries are not in prosecutors' back pockets. "They do not do what the prosecutor wants," he said.
Paul Boyden, executive director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said there are instances when grand juries are warranted, such as when the victim is a child or a politician is under investigation.
The last point appealed to lawmakers on the committee who said they could see how a public official's reputation could be damaged if the proceedings were held in the open.
Darcy Van Orden, of Utah Rising, said grand juries lack transparency and accountability. Prosecutors, she said, already have the ability to request them.
"There is no reason to flip-flop the system," she said. "There is not a problem that exists."