THE STAGES OF A CRIMINAL CASE
A criminal case has many distinct and crucial stages as it develops. Each provides a unique defense opportunities and strategies
Although a citizen can request a prosecutor to charge a crime, most cases begin with the police. They are called to the scene, perform an investigation and either issue citations (for misdemeanors), make an arrest, or continue their investigation. If a citation is issued, the suspect is allowed to go home and will wait to see it they are charged by the prosecutor and then summoned to court in the mail.
An officer will often an arrest, usually with serious crimes but only half the time with a misdemeanor. Two major exceptions are DUI and Domestic Violence. The DUI arrest is made so they can obtain a breath or blood sample. The driver is usually then allowed to go home. Domestic Violence is the only misdemeanor that has a “mandatory arrest” law. A suspect may post bail but most jurisdictions require them to see a judge so that no-contact orders can be issued.
Although a misdemeanor can technically begin with a police officer’s citation, almost all cases begin with a prosecutor reviewing the report and deciding proper criminal charges. They draw up a document called “the complaint” which specifies the crime, the date, location and other required details.
Arraignment is where the complaint is read to the defendant. Most judges encourage defendants to plead not guilty in order to review their case before making decisions. If a person is in-custody, the court will determine a proper bail. This can be a large sum with serious crimes. If the charge is minimal and they have little criminal history, they will often release them on their own “personal recognizance.” They are given a date to come back for further hearings.
The vast majority of court hearings occur at this level. The majority of cases are also resolved here through plea bargains, dismissals and other resolutions. This stage includes the “discovery” process where the prosecutor provides the evidence against the accused. This consists of the police report, witness statements, lab reports, and other test results. Defense must also provide discovery including witnesses and any other evidence they plan to use. Defense may also offer health documents or treatment plans
Most cases are resolved through plea bargains. Defense will expose weakness in the case and if the case is not dismissed outright (which is rare), the prosecutor may offer a lesser charge or punishment or both. If the deal is accepted, the defendant “pleads guilty” to this different crime and a trial is avoided. Other resolutions at the misdemeanor level include “diversions,” stipulated orders of continuance, and deferred prosecutions in which the case is slowly dismissed if the defendant performs treatment, and remains crime free.
If there’s no plea, the case is set for trial. A defendant has a right to jury trial. They can waive it and proceed by bench trial where the judge decides everything. A trial is broken into phases (1) “Motions in Limine” to exclude evidence (2) Voir Dire where each side questions and picks the jurors (3) Opening Statements by each side (4) The government presents their case and witnesses (5) The Defense presents their case (6) Each side is allowed to “cross examine” the other side’s witnesses (7) Closing Arguments (8) The jury then deliberates and decides, and (9) The verdict is read.
This can be the most important portion of any case and curiously the government puts the least effort into it. Many plea bargains result in an “agreed sentence” where there is no dispute but this is rarely the case when there is a trial. Both sides can present a wide array of information to help the judge decide the proper sentence. If the matter is a felony, the judge is bound by the strict guidelines of the S.R.A. but there can still be a wide variety of time between the mandatory minimum and maximum range. With a misdemeanor, the judge has complete discretion between no jail and a full year.
A person may be placed on some type of “monitored probation,” or supervision by the Department of Corrections along with all the other conditions of sentence which may require them to pay fines and fees, get evaluations, take classes, do community service hours and other things. If they fail to do these or if they are accused of a new crime, the court will summons them back and the prosecutor or court may seek to “revoke” additional jail time. A Deferred Prosecution with DUIs has a significant amount of probation.