If you’re facing a criminal charge you may be feeling overwhelmed and confused. Going through the court process for the first time can be frightening. But part of that fear is rooted in uncertainty – what exactly will this process be like? What do you have to do, and what can you expect? In this section of the website, I discuss the most important things that you need to know about the court process if you have been charged with a crime.
A criminal case starts with some sort of police involvement. The investigation phase of a criminal case can be short (arrest on the spot) or long. Sometimes a detective might contact you to “get your side of the story.” It’s important to remember that they’re not on your side, no matter what they say. They have a job to do and that’s to investigate a crime. You have the absolute right to remain silent and that silence cannot be used against you. It’s very important to not make any statements to the police without speaking to a lawyer first. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide whether it’s in your best interest to give a statement or to remain silent. At this stage, a lawyer may be able to intervene and convince a detective to close their investigation without filing any criminal charges.
Arrest & Case Filing
If the police officer/detective believes they have probable cause to move forward with a criminal charge they will submit a police report to a the District Attorney’s office. The District Attorney’s office is who prosecutes criminal cases at the state level (the US Attorney’s office prosecutes criminal cases at the federal level). The prosecutor’s office will then review the case to decide whether they will accept or reject the case. If they accept it, it is considered “filed.” This is an important early stage in a criminal case when a lawyer can intervene to stop a case before it gets started. Your lawyer can contact the prosecutor in charge of accepting or rejecting your case to argue that they should reject it.
Once a misdemeanor case is filed it is assigned to a court and the court will schedule a first court setting. Because felony offenses are more serious, they must go through the extra step of the prosecutor presenting them to the grand jury. The grand jury’s role is to decide whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to move forward. The grand jury hearing is a closed proceeding meaning except in rare circumstances you will not be there nor will your lawyer. The grand jury either indicts or dismisses the case. If they indict the case, the indictment lays out the crime charged and exactly what the prosecutor has to prove in order to find you guilty. This is another important early stage of a criminal case when your lawyer may be able to stop an investigation from becoming a case. If appropriate based on the facts, your lawyer can submit a “grand jury packet” which is a presentation of whatever information the lawyer believes the grand jury should consider in making their decision.
First Court Setting
After a misdemeanor is filed or a felony is indicted, the court will schedule a first court setting. You will receive a notice from the court of the court date, time, and location. Your lawyer will instruct you on the policies of your particular court and judge (whether you have to attend every court date, et cetera).
You have the right to get full discovery of all the evidence the prosecutor has against you. This includes all evidence: police reports, witness statements, video/audio, pictures, scientific evidence, et cetera. Your lawyer requests discovery and the prosecutor must provide with within a reasonable amount of time (which depends varies based on the case, type of evidence, et cetera). Your lawyer then reviews all the evidence and goes over it with you so you can fully understand your case. Before showing you any evidence, however, your lawyer is legally required to redact any sensitive information (like social security numbers, home addresses of witnesses, et cetera). The law does not allow you to have copies of the evidence other than your own statement and anything publicly available.
Plea Bargain Process
In most every case, after reviewing their file, the prosecutor will make some sort of plea bargain offer. This is the sentence they would recommend to the judge if you pleaded guilty instead of going to trial. Your lawyer is legally required to communicate any and all offers to you in a timely manner. You lawyer should discuss the offer with you so you can decide whether to accept, reject, or attempt to negotiate a better deal.
You have an absolute right to a jury trial. This means the prosecutor would have to present evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury (of 12 in a felony case, of 6 in a misdemeanor) that you are guilty of the charge. If the jury has a reasonable doubt, they must find you not guilty.