How Criminal Cases Work: From Arrest To Trial
Dealing with a criminal charge can be scary and confusing. Once you have been arrested, what happens next? When do I need to hire a lawyer? And when will I know what my charges are?
Step 1: The Bond Hearing
When you’re first arrested your case will automatically be assigned to a bond docket. This is where your tentative charges are brought before a judge, and a judge makes a decision about what your bond should be based on those charges. Crucially, the charge your bond is based on may not be what you are formally charged with. Once your bond is set you may either post bond and get released from jail, or you may remain in custody until your arraignment. If you choose to bond out of jail, you will be given an arraignment date. You must appear at your arraignment whether you have hired an attorney or not.
Step 2: The Arraignment
Once you have been arrested, a police report will be generated by the arresting agency. They will send this report over to prosecutors and an Assistant District Attorney will read the report and determine what they will charge you with, if anything. Once they have made this decision, they will file the case and it will be given a case number on OSCN with your name and the charges.
You will then go to a court date called an “arraignment.” At the arraignment, you will go before the judge and the judge will ask if the State has filed charges against you. The Prosecutor will either answer no, and you will be released and not need to come back, or they will answer yes. If they answer yes, the judge will have them read the case number aloud. The judge will read you your charges and rights and enter a “not guilty” plea on your behalf until you can talk to an attorney. The judge will then set your case for the conference docket and either appoint a public defender for you or tell you to hire an attorney.
Step 3: The Conference Docket
It is important to hire an attorney before your conference docket. A conference docket is where a prosecutor provides a plea offer, and your attorney negotiates on your behalf. Once you receive this plea offer, you will go over it with your attorney and determine the best course of action on your case. From here there are a few different paths you can take.
Most cases stay in the conference docket while your attorney is negotiating a plea deal with the State’s attorney. Sometimes it will take a few meetings before they come to an agreement. It may also get stuck here while you make a decision about what path is best for you, especially if it is a misdemeanor.
Option 1: Plead Out
Most cases end in a plea. There are 3 main types of pleas: The guilty plea, the no contest plea, and the blind plea. For an in depth discussion of what each of these pleas entails, and some more other types of pleas, check out our article about pleas here.
The Guilty Plea is when you plead guilty to the State’s recommendation, and you follow all of the requirements they give you. This could be probation and classes or it could be jail time. Once you complete everything they have required of you, you are finished and your case is over.
The No Contest Plea is very similar to the guilty plea, and just like with the guilty plea, you are agreeing to do everything the State is requiring and your case is over once you have completed it. However, unlike with the guilty plea, you are not necessarily admitting you are guilty. Instead you are acknowledging that the State has enough evidence to prove your guilt in court.
The Blind Plea is completely different from a no contest and guilty plea. Unlike with the other pleas, a blind plea does not accept the requirements the State is offering. Instead, you plead guilty directly to the judge without accepting the state’s offer and the judge sentences you based on what they believe is best.
Option 2: Go To Trial
If you choose to take your case to trial, how your case progresses will be different depending on if you are charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. If you are unsure if your case is a felony or misdemeanor, it is always best to consult your attorney. However, you can normally tell based on the case title. If your case number starts with a “CF” it is almost always a felony. If your case number starts with a “CM” it is almost always a misdemeanor.
Step 4: The Preliminary Hearing
If your case is a felony, and you choose not to take a plea deal, your case will be set for a preliminary hearing, often called a prelim. This is only true for felonies and does not happen for misdemeanors. This is like a small version of the trial. The State’s attorney has to prove to the judge that they have probable cause for your case to proceed to trial. During this hearing the State has the burden of proof, and most people choose not to put on a defense at all. If the State doesn’t meet their burden of proof, the judge will dismiss your case. Sometimes, the judge will find probable cause for some of your charges, and not for others. When this happens, the judge will only dismiss the charges that didn’t have enough evidence, and the case will proceed on the remaining charges only.
Step 5: The District Court Arraignment
If the State successfully puts on the prelim your case is “bound over.” This means they have won this stage and you are sent to District Court Arraignment, often called DCA. DCA is similar to the conference docket. You still have the opportunity to plead and your attorney can negotiate your plea deal with the State’s attorney. However, most plea deals get worse after the prelim. This is because the State’s attorney has tried a portion of their case and won, so they now feel more confident in their case. If you choose to plead, you can still plead in any of the ways we described above.
However, if you choose not to plead, your case will be set for a jury trial sounding docket or a non jury trial. After it is set, the Judge will give your attorney and the State’s attorney a deadline to file all pre-trial motions. Pre-trial motions are written arguments both sides present to the judge before the actual trial happens. The judge will give them a motion hearing date and rule on those motions.
Step 6: The Trial
There are two types of trials you can have if you choose to have a trial: the jury trial and the non jury trial. Very few cases actually make it to this stage: the vast majority of them either plead out or get dismissed much earlier. Just like before, you can still always plead, even once your case is set for trial. The State’s attorney may not give you a plea deal, or they may give you a very bad plea deal, but even then, you can still blind plead to the judge.
Option 1: The Jury Trial
The Jury trial is what you expect when you think of a trial. It is the trial you see on TV with a collection of 12 of your peers sitting in the box who decide whether or not you are guilty. It is made up of: voir dire, openings, the State’s case, the defense’s case, closings, and deliberation/verdict.
Voir Dire: voir dire occurs at the very beginning of a jury trial before the jury has been selected. Both sides attorneys prepare questions to ask a large group of potential jurors (the exact number of how many people can vary). They then strike the potential jurors they believe would most hurt their case. At the end, a jury of 12 people and normally 2 alternates are selected to sit and listen to the trial.
Openings: once voir dire is done, both sides are given an opportunity to present openings. The State’s attorney goes first. An opening is just your first official statement to the jury. It normally consists of an overview of the events that lead to today’s case and the evidence that will be presented.
The State’s Case: during the State’s case they can call as many witnesses as they would like to testify against you. During this time they will perform what is called a direct examination. A direct examination is where an attorney asks questions of a witness called to testify by that side. At the end of the direct examination, the defense is given the opportunity to cross examine the witness. A cross examination is questioning from an attorney that did not call the witness to testify, and is typically intended to disprove what they just said on direct examination. Once the State has finished calling all of their witnesses, and the defense has cross examined all of them, the State “rests” and the defense’s case begins.
The Defense’s Case: The Defense’s case can look very different depending on what your lawyer feels is best for you. Since the prosecution has the burden of proof, some lawyers choose not to put on a case at all if they feel the State hasn’t met their burden. However, just like with the State, the Defense can call witnesses and the State will have an opportunity to cross examine them.
Closings: This is the final argument from both sides. The State will present their closing argument first and the Defense will go after them. The State also gets an additional closing after the defense has finished theirs; this is called a rebuttal.
Deliberations/ verdict: Once both parties have finished their closings, the jury will be sent back to deliberate. This is where the jury makes a decision about the case. The time a jury takes to deliberate can range from minutes to weeks. There is no set amount of time juries can deliberate, and it takes as long as they need to make a unanimous decision. Once they have come to a unanimous decision, they are called back into the courtroom to read the verdict and announce whether they have found you guilty or innocent. This concludes your case, and you will be deemed either guilty or not guilty at this time. If you are found guilty, you will proceed to punishment.
Sentencing: If you have been found guilty, the jury will then determine your punishment. This can look different depending on the case. Sometimes the jury will give your sentence at the same time as the verdict. In some cases, the jury will provide their verdict, then both sides will present arguments on what the punishment should be. This argument will look similar to the closing argument, but will focus on the length of the punishment rather than guilt or innocence. The jury will deliberate again, then come back in with the sentence.
Option 2: The Non Jury Trial
The non jury trial is procedurally exactly like the jury trial, but with only a judge hearing your case instead of a jury of your peers.. Because there is no jury, there will be no voir dire and the case will go straight to opening statements. All other aspects of the case are the same. People choose a non jury trial over a jury trial for a few key reasons. One is that you can have a non jury trial much faster than a jury trial. Especially in light of COVID you may wait years to have your case heard before a jury, but a judge can accommodate you much faster than a jury can. Another reason is juries can make more emotional decisions than judges do. If your lawyer believes that your case doesn’t meet the elements of the crime, a non-jury trial may be a better choice for your case. A jury may find you guilty because they are upset with what you did, whereas a judge may be more likely to analyze the legal aspects of the case and see that the State did not meet its burden.
Once the judge makes a decision regarding guilt or innocence, the judge will determine the sentence. This may be done at the same time as the determination of guilt or it may be done after. This will depend on your criminal history and what type of case it is.
The Bottom Line
Your case can look very different depending on decisions you make during the process and whether your case is a misdemeanor or a felony. This is why we recommend hiring an attorney to guide you through the process. While the court will not require you to hire an attorney right away, the sooner your attorney gets involved in your case, the sooner they can start fighting for you and protect your interests. If you have been charged with a crime, please contact us for a free consultation on your case.