COMMENTARY: Victims also have rights in court

By Craig Wismer

In a previous guest commentary, I discussed arraignment hearings and the constitutional rights defendants possess when they appear in court to enter pleas to criminal charges.

One topic I did not cover involves rights that apply to one other important potential party, that being alleged victims.

I say alleged because at the time defendants first appear in court and the charges are read, those individuals are only accused of violating criminal statutes. Nothing has been proven; the defendants haven’t been convicted of the crimes.

That being the case, certain Arizona statutes, and the crime victim’s rights provisions of the Arizona Constitution, afford even alleged victims certain privileges they may choose to exercise throughout the entire case disposition process. Let me give you three examples.

First, when defendants plead not guilty at the arraignment hearing, judges will set the cases for pre-trial conferences so they can meet with the prosecutor in order to learn how the case may be completed. During the course of negotiations, a defendant may learn that the state plans on filing a motion to dismiss the charges. Before that occurs, however, crime victims are permitted to offer their say about the direction the criminal case is apparently headed. This input is something that a judge must consider before taking action that concludes the matter.

Second, if at the PTC the prosecutor and the defendant reach an agreement concerning the disposition of the charges, before the judge accepts the terms he or she must ensure that the State provided notice to the victim and, again, consider any statements the person may wish to provide.

Finally, if a defendant is convicted of a criminal offense the judge will conduct a hearing, the purpose of which is to impose a sentence. In the court where I serve as the Arrowhead Justice of the Peace, the sentence can include being placed on probation. Terms of probation could include the defendant having no contact with the victim. If the defendant petitions the court for early termination of probation or a modification of its terms, the court must ensure that notice of the request was provided to the victim and, again, any input considered.

In conclusion, in cases involving the victim of a crime I will not finalize the adjudication of it, or when necessary make post-conviction rulings, until I have in the file a compliance statement that satisfies me that person was advised of the potential disposition of the charges and had an opportunity to weigh in with comments.

Editor’s Note: Craig Wismer is Arrowhead Justice Court justice of the peace.

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