What are the steps involved in a criminal case?

by Jon Sinclair, Lawyer Referral Service Panelist

The first step in a criminal case is a charge, technically called a criminal complaint, which is made and filed by a police officer.  Once a charge is filed, one of two things can happen: 1) the person can be cited and summoned to appear in court, or 2) an officer can arrest the person, and the person is held in jail until a judge issues a bond. A bond is usually set within 24-48 hours. Once a bond is issued, the person is free to leave jail.  (A bond is generally set at a reasonable amount for the defendant unless violence or a high amount of drugs are involved, but bond can also be based on prior history with the court system and whether or not a person has ever failed to appear in court. In those situations, a bond might be set at a higher amount.)

For misdemeanor cases, a summons is issued or an arrest is made.  Felony cases, however, go to an “initial appearance” which is when a person charged with a crime first appears before a judge, and then the case is sent to a grand jury, which determines if there is probable cause to support a felony charge. A case can be ignored by the grand jury or charges can be reduced to a misdemeanor.

Pre-trials are used mostly to gather discovery, which refers to the evidence the prosecutor has relating to the case.  A motion for discovery is what a defense attorney files with the court to obtain that information from the prosecutor.  A motion to dismiss and motions to suppress evidence occur in the pre-trial stage.  It is common to set a case for trial even though trial is not expected because that trial date may be the only opportunity to plea bargain and discuss a resolution with all the necessary people—prosecutor, defense attorney, police officer, alleged victim, and defendant—all in the same room.

There are two types of trials: “bench trials,” where there is no jury and a judge decides the outcome, and “jury trials,” where a jury of one’s peers decides the outcome. Jury trials are only available if the charge a person is facing involves possible jail time.  Charges for speeding tickets or possession of 100 grams of marijuana or less, for example, would not be eligible for a jury trial since minor misdemeanors never come with possible jail sentence.

Misdemeanors of the fourth, third, second and first degree and all felonies come with possible jail sentencing, so if a person facing one of these charges wants a jury trial, he or she has the right to it, but must make a written demand for it. Most plea bargaining is done on the day of trial and results in a plea of guilty, often to a reduced charged. A trial does not take place when there is plea bargaining. Following a plea, a sentence is given by the judge. If there is no plea-bargaining, then a trial is held, where the prosecutor and defense attorney each present their case.  The decision known as a verdict is made at the conclusion of a jury trial and then a sentence is given.

This is a very generalized overview of the steps of the criminal process.  Every case has its own unique set of circumstances that may affect this process. When faced with a criminal matter, it is always best to consult with an attorney as soon as possible.

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