Anatomy of a Criminal Case

Mar 25, 2015

The Purpose of a Lawsuit

Learning that you are being charged with a crime can be a very scary thing.  For most people, all you know about how the criminal justice system works is what you have seen on the television show Law & Order.  This article is no substitute for hiring a lawyer, but it will hopefully make you less anxious about the process.

There are only three things that can happen in a case: (1) it gets dismissed; (2) you accept a plea; (3) you go to trial.  If you keep this in mind as you go through the process, then no matter how many twists and turns your case may make as it winds its way through the system, you will always know that no matter what, only one of these three things will happen.

So, how do we get from the beginning to the end of a criminal case?

All criminal cases start with a complaint1.   A complaint is a formal charging document filed with the Court.  The filing of a complaint triggers the first important court appearance for you: the Arraignment.  One of the things that our Forefathers believed was important was that an accused be brought before a tribunal and informed of the charges against them.  In the past, people could be arrested and secreted in the Tower of London or another prison, and never seen or heard from again.  In the American system, you have a right to know exactly what you are being charged with.  You learn this information at the arraignment.  Your arraignment is also where a Judge determines what the terms of your pretrial release will be, commonly referred to as Bail.  There are only two things that a judge is supposed to consider when setting bail: (1) what is the minimum necessary to ensure that you will come to Court? and (2) what is the minimum necessary to ensure the safety of the community?

Bail, or pretrial release, could take on a variety of forms.

You could be released on your personal recognizance, which means that you are simply released on your word that you will come to court, and you will not commit any more crimes while the case is pending.

You could be released after posting an amount of money determined by the court.  What this means is that whatever amount of money the court specifies must be paid to the court before you will be released. Once released, if you do not come to court or you commit another crime while the case is pending, you may forfeit this money.  However, if at the completion of the case you have abided by all the rules, this money will be returned.

You could be released with conditions.  This could be any number of creative ideas from an order to stay away from the alleged victim to wearing a global positioning system (GPS) on your ankle or anything in between.  This is where you and your lawyer can be creative.  Any number of conditions could be fashioned as options for the judge.  Most judges, if the conditions seem reasonable, are willing to entertain them in lieu of holding you.

As important as this hearing is and as stressed as you may be there sitting and waiting for your case to be called, once the case is called the whole hearing is usually over in less than 5 minutes.

At this stage, depending on the seriousness of the offense, the prosecutor may present the case to the Grand Jury.  The Grand Jury is a group of citizens from the county in which the Court sits who determine whether there is probable cause to issue an Indictment.  This usually is the determination of whether the case will proceed as a felony or as a misdemeanor.  An indictment moves the case from the lower trial court to a higher trial court.  These Courts have different names depending on the State, but they are both classified as Trial Courts and both provide direct access to the Appeals Court if you are convicted.

Regardless of whether your case proceeds as a misdemeanor or as a felony, the rest of the process is the same.

The next thing that happens, which takes up a large majority of the pretrial time, is Discovery.

A formal charge triggers the government’s obligation to provide you with the information it has against you.  Real trials and real cases are not like Perry Mason.  There is no surprise witness.  There is no secret paperwork.  There is no “Aha!” moment where the real culprit succumbs on the witness stand to the brilliant questioning of defense counsel and admits that it was He who did the crime.  The government is obligated to turn over all inculpatory evidence (the evidence against you) and any evidence they might have that is exculpatory (tends to show that you may not have committed the crime).

There may be some motions filed for more information if your lawyer believes the government has important information.  There may be some motions filed to get things from third parties.  This could include medical records from a hospital, video surveillance from a store, cell phone records from the provider, or any number of things that are not in the government’s custody and control.

This is also when your lawyer may want to send out an investigator to collect information of your own. Some of this information may then need to be turned over to the government, but leave that up to your attorney to decide.

Then there are dispositive motions.  This is any motion that can be argued as a matter of law – meaning a motion to dismiss because something incorrect had been done in the process, or if the act you are being accused of is not a crime.  This is highly technical and its viability is determined exclusively by the specific facts and circumstances of your case.  A good lawyer will be able to explain to you the exact nuances of your motions.

Next are evidentiary motions.  These are things like a motion to suppress.  These motions usually require that the court take evidence in the form of papers and witnesses to determine if there was anything improper done.  If so, then it may be that the government will be forbidden from using that evidence.

After all of this is done, there comes a Trial.

At any stage above your case could be dismissed, or you could accept an offer from the government to resolve your case.  You should always look to your lawyer for advice on what path is right for you.  But remember that the choice to accept an offer from the government or to go to trial is yours and yours alone.  No one can force you to take a plea.  YOU have a constitutional right to a trial.

1 Sometimes you may be summonsed to a Magistrate's Hearing before a Complaint is issued. At this point you have not been charged with a crime, you have only been accused of a crime. The Magistrate then determines if there is probable cause of a complaint to issue. Until there is a complaint, you have not been formally charged.