Steps of a Criminal Case
If you’ve never been on the wrong side of the law before (or even if you have), you may be interested to learn about the process. Here is a quick overview:
Police Report: First things first – law enforcement learns about a potential violation of law. Someone might call 911, call the non-emergency line, or come into the police department to report a “cold” incident (something that happened in the past and is over now), a police officer might witness something first hand (e.g. speeding), etc. No matter the method of finding out, once law enforcement knows about a potential crime, they have to decide whether or not there is “probable cause.” That is, they have to decide if it is more likely than not that someone broke the law. They’ll often engage in some investigation first: asking questions, making phone calls, looking for physical evidence, etc. If their investigation doesn’t turn up enough solid evidence of a crime—even if they personally think there has been some misconduct—they won’t file any charges; nothing else happens. If, however, they do find enough evidence of a crime, then they file criminal charges. The suspect will either receive paperwork telling them they have been charged with a crime and that they have to come to court at a certain date and time, or the suspect will be arrested.
Bond: If the suspect is arrested, then a bond hearing will follow within a day or so where they stand in court and the judge tells them an amount of money they’ll need to pay in order to be released from jail. The suspect can try to pay the bond amount (or a portion of it to a bondsman) and get released from jail while the criminal case is pending. If the suspect cannot afford the bond (or to pay a bondsman), then they’ll remain in jail while the criminal case is pending.
Advisement: At the first court date (the bond hearing, if arrested; the date on the paperwork, if not arrested), the judge will tell the suspect what they have been charged with, what their rights are, and ask them whether they have or would like to have an attorney. Then the judge will set another court date to give the suspect time to get an attorney (if desired and not already hired) and to start negotiating for a plea bargain.
Plea Bargaining: Once the charges are filed, the local District Attorney’s office gets them. They then assign the case to one of their DA’s (also called prosecutors). The suspect, either by themselves or through an attorney, will then try to negotiate a plea bargain with the DA. This negotiation can happen via phone or email, but there will also be specific court dates set up for the suspect or attorney to meet with the DA and try to resolve face to face. Any official change in the case (bond reduction, acceptance or rejection of a plea, etc.) has to happen at one of these court dates. At each court date, if there is no resolution, another court date will be scheduled. There can be several of these court dates, and sometimes they are several weeks apart, making the plea bargaining process potentially quite lengthy.
Plea or No Plea: At some point in the plea bargaining process, the suspect will either accept a plea bargain or realize that they and the DA will not be able to reach an agreement. If the suspect accepts a plea bargain, then they’ll plead guilty and be sentenced according to the plea bargain. They must then fulfill all the requirements of their sentence (these can include jail time, classes, community services, drug treatment, etc.).
If the suspect can’t reach an agreement with the DA, then they’ll plead not guilty and set the case for a trial. Once they plead not guilty, the speedy trial right begins, and the trial must be heard within the following six months (with a few exceptions). Often, if the suspect pleads not guilty, the DA will revoke all their previous plea bargain offers.
Trial: The suspect will only go to trial if they cannot reach an agreeable plea bargain with the DA. For a trial, the suspect has several rights and will be able to, among other things, help choose the jury, subpoena and call witnesses, cross examine the DA’s witnesses, decide for themselves whether to testify or not (and the jury will be instructed that they cannot use it against the suspect if they decide not to testify), and present a theory of defense. The jury will then hear all the evidence and decide whether or not the suspect is guilty of any of the charges.
If the jury finds the suspect guilty, then the suspect will be sentenced according to the sentencing laws for the charge they are guilty of. The suspect may also be able to appeal the guilty verdict to a higher court.
If the jury finds the suspect not guilty, then the case ends, the bond (if the suspect paid one) is released, and the suspect can get their record sealed.
If you’re facing a criminal charge, we highly recommend you speak with an attorney before speaking with the DA’s office. Gant Law can help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.
The information obtained through these articles is not legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship is formed by the posting of or reading of the same. In addition, note that the law is constantly in flux, and some information may be outdated.