Criminal Trial Process

Important things to know about “Stages of a Criminal Case”

1. The Arrest

An arrest is made when the police feel they have enough evidence to “indicate” that a suspect committed a crime.  The evidence can be physical, such as a weapon, or it can be based solely on an individual statement.  In any event, no matter how strong you think the evidence is against you, it’s important to remember that an arrest is far short from an actual conviction.  In all cases, an arrest does NOT automatically mean you’re guilty.

The single most important thing to remember is that the officer that arrests you or the detective that says he wants to help you by “getting you’re side of the story” is only interested in gathering evidence AGAINST YOU.

DO NOT answer any questions without an Attorney. You cannot fool these guys.  They are professional interrogators. Your right to REMAIN SILENT is you’re best choice.

2. Booking, Bail, and Bond

When a defendant is transported to jail they are then booked with charges alleged by the reporting officer.  At this point, the defendant will either: 1) be automatically released from jail based on his own recognizance, or 2) need to post bail, or 3) need to remain in jail because bail is declined.  If bail is declined, the defendant will remain in jail until their case is resolved.

  • What is bail? Bail is the amount of money a defendant must pay to get out of jail.  If a defendant shows up for all court dates, then the bail money is refunded.  However, if the defendant does not show up for court, or flees the jurisdiction, then the court will keep the money and issue an arrest warrant to physically return the defendant back to court.
  • What is a Bail Bond? A bond is a little different than bail, but generally holds the same theory.  A defendant may hire a bondsman to post a bond for the total amount of bail.   This allows the defendant to get out of jail with paying a much smaller amount of cash – usually about 10% of the bail amount.  The downside to posting a bond is that the 10% paid by the defendant is a non-refundable fee paid to the bondsman for doing business.

One important thing to remember before posting bail is that being represented by a private attorney will qualify you to purchase a bond at 8% rather than the customary 10%. Also an attorney may be able to have your total bail reduced at the first Court appearance or even get an Honor Release Order, saving you a great deal more.

3. Arraignment

The arraignment is generally the first court appearance for the defendant and the judge will usually do the following:

  • Read the criminal charge or charges against the defendant.  Having a private attorney at this stage will help you better understand the charges and determine the BEST course of action.
  • Ask the defendant if he or she has a criminal defense lawyer or if you can afford to hire one.  If you tell the Court that you will hire your own attorney the Court will in most cases give you enough time to find the attorney.
  • Ask the defendant to enter a plea of “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest.” The usual plea at this stage is NOT GUILTY.
  • Possibly revise or reduce bail or release the defendant on his or her own recognizance.  The best chance of this is when you have your own attorney.
  • Set the dates for future proceedings in the case.

4. Plea Bargain

In order to avoid a trial, the prosecution may offer the defendant a plea bargain.  Although accepting a plea bargain means that a defendant will have to plead guilty to a crime, the benefits of the plea deal include reduced penalties, less jail or prison time, and avoiding strikes.  The criminal justice system encourages plea bargains because they help alleviate the burden on the court system. If you are represented by the Public Defender and are offered a plea bargain, you should consider having a private criminal defense attorney review the deal before you accept it.

Often the diligence of a private attorney will result in a much better outcome of your case. However keep in mind the fact that it is much better to have a private attorney from the start.  Negotiating a plea bargain is a sensitive matter that must be handled correctly from the start. Waiting to see “what the public defender can do for me” often results in making the situation worse and that much harder to resolve the case.

5. Preliminary Hearing

This hearing is designed for the court to determine if there is enough “cause” to hold the defendant over to trial.  The judge will hear arguments from both the prosecution and defense attorney.  The prosecution may present the court with physical evidence that the defendant committed a crime or they may call various witnesses into court for their live testimony.  The defense attorney’s goal is to minimize the validity of any evidence that the prosecution has presented and locking certain witnesses into their testimony to use it against them later at trial.

Often at the preliminary hearing a good attorney will avoid the need for trial by showing the prosecution that the facts warrant a favorable Plea Bargain.  It is always a good idea to have the same attorney do the preliminary and the trial so that important issues are not overlooked.

6. Trial Confirmation and Pre-Trial Motions

This hearing is held to confirm both parties will be ready for trial.  In addition, this proceeding gives the defense attorney an opportunity to further negotiate the case. If it is determined by you and your attorney that trial is the best option then trial is confirmed.

7. Trial

In most cases, a jury will be selected for trial.  Since the prosecution has the burden of proof they get the opportunity to make the first statement and prove their case.  After the prosecution rests, the defense has the opportunity to present their evidence to show the defendant did not commit any crimes.

The prosecution needs to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed a crime.  If the jury determines there is a reasonable doubt, then the defendant is entitled to a verdict of “not guilty.”  If all jurors cannot reach a unanimous decision, then the jury is considered “hung” and a mistrial is declared by the Court. The District Attorney will then decide to dismiss the case or start over from the jury selection.

The most important factor to consider in choosing a trial attorney is experience and results. You want an attorney who has tried many cases AND who has won many cases.

8. Sentencing

In less serious crimes, such as misdemeanors, the judge will usually impose a sentence immediately after a guilty plea or conviction.  In more serious cases, such as felonies, the judge may consider input from the prosecution, defense attorney, or the probation department before deciding on an appropriate sentence.

Having a private attorney often means that you will know in advance what your sentence will be. Our goal in this step is…NO Surprises.

9. Appeals Process

During an appeal, the defense attorney will argue that the case should be dismissed, the defendant should receive a new trial, or that the defendant should receive a new sentence.  No new evidence will be introduced during the appeal.  Only the record of the trial proceedings will be considered by the appellate court, along with written briefs by both sides of the appeal.