How Criminal Cases Work In Oklahoma: From Arrest To Trial

How Criminal Cases Work In Oklahoma: From Arrest To Trial

Dealing with a criminal charge can be scary and confusing. Once you have been arrested, what happens next? When do you need to hire a lawyer? And when will you know what your charges are? To provide some answers, here are the basic steps a criminal case will follow in the state of Oklahoma.

Step 1: The Bond Hearing

When you’re first arrested, your case will automatically be assigned to a bond docket. This is when a judge makes a decision about what your bond should be based on your initial charges. It’s important to note that 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 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, the arresting agency will generate a police report. They will send this report to the State’s prosecutors and an assistant district attorney will determine what to charge you with, if anything. Once the prosecutors have made this decision, they will file the case and create a case number on Oklahoma State Courts Network (OSCN) with your name and charges.

You will then go to a court date called an “arraignment.” At the arraignment, the judge will ask if the State has filed charges against you. If the prosecutor answers no, you will be released and not need to come back; if the prosecutor answers yes, the judge will have them read the case number aloud. The judge will read your charges and rights and enter a “not guilty” plea on your behalf until you can talk to an attorney. This is standard for criminal felony proceedings in Oklahoma. The judge will then set your case for the conference docket and either appoint you with a public defender 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 for your case.

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 four main types of pleas. For an in-depth discussion of what each entails, check out our article about pleas here. But a short summary of the four main types is:

The Guilty Plea is when you plead guilty to the State’s recommendation—you admit to doing the wrong—and follow all the requirements they give you. This could be probation, classes, or even jail time. Once you’ve completed everything the State has required, your case is over.

The No Contest Plea is similar to the guilty plea. You agree to do everything the State requires and your case is over once you have completed those requirements. However, unlike with the guilty plea, you are not necessarily admitting you are guilty. Instead you are simply 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.

The Alford Plea is rarely used in criminal felony proceedings in Oklahoma, but worth mentioning. An Alford plea is when you enter a guilty plea, but maintain your innocence. To review: A guilty plea admits your guilt; a no contest plea, does not admit guilt, but rather that the State could likely prove it; a blind plea admits guilt but relies on a judge to determine the consequences; and finally, an Alford Plea accepts the consequences of being guilty while asserting that you are entirely innocent.

Many prosecutors won’t allow you to enter an Alford plea because it can be unclear whether a predicate offense would attach to the conviction for the purposes of enhancement. Other prosecutors forbid Alford pleas for policy reasons—allowing an innocent person to plead guilty to a crime is counterintuitive and doesn’t serve justice.

Option 2: Go To Trial

If you choose to take your case to trial, how your case progresses will depend on if you are charged with a felony or misdemeanor. If you are unsure if your case is a felony or misdemeanor, 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. A prelim is like a small version of the trial. The State’s attorney must 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 is successful in the prelim, your case is “bound over.” This means the State has won this stage and you are sent to District Court Arraignment (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 about the chances of getting a full conviction. That being said, 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 bench trial. After this date 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 both sides 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: a jury trial or a bench trial. Very few cases actually make it to this stage: the vast majority 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; even then, you can still blind plead to the judge.

Option 1: Jury Trial

The jury trial is what you’d expect based on TV shows: 12 of your peers sitting in the box who decide whether or not you are guilty. The procedures of a jury trial include:

Voir Dire: Both the prosecuting and defense attorney prepare questions to ask a large group of potential jurors. Each attorney will eliminate the potential jurors they believe would hurt their case. At the end, a jury of 12 people and two alternates are selected for the trial.

Openings: Once voir dire is complete, both sides are given an opportunity to present official opening statements with the State’s attorney going first. An opening normally consists of an overview of the events that led to the case and the evidence that will be presented.

The State’s Case: As the State presents its case, prosecutors 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 when an attorney asks questions of their witness. 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 its witnesses, and the defense has cross examined them, the State “rests” and the defense’s case begins.

The Defense’s Case: The defense’s case can look very different depending on your lawyer’s strategy. 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 its 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 next. The State also gets an additional closing after the defense has finished; this is called a rebuttal.

Deliberations/Verdict: Once both parties have finished their closings, the jury will be sent away to deliberate. This is when 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 take 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 of guilty or not guilty (innocent). This concludes your trial. If you are found guilty, you will proceed to punishment.

Sentencing: If you have been found guilty, the jury will 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 other 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: Bench Trial

The procedural elements of a bench trial and jury trial are exactly the same. What’s different about a bench trial is a judge hears 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 bench trial over a jury trial for a few key reasons. For one, bench trials are faster because a judge is more efficient than a jury. Another reason is juries have less legal and technical knowledge, and make more emotional decisions than judges. If your case is less sympathetic in nature or legally complex, a bench trial can be more beneficial because a judge is trained to impassively analyze the facts of the case and see that the State did not meet its burden. (Whereas if your lawyer believes your case clearly doesn’t meet the elements of the crime or you present a sympathetic story, a jury trial may be a better choice.)

Once the judge makes a decision regarding guilt or innocence, they will determine the sentence. This may be done at the same time as the determination of guilt or after. This will depend on your criminal history and the type of case.

The Bottom Line

Your case can look very different depending on decisions you make during the process and whether you’re facing a misdemeanor or felony. This is why we recommend hiring an attorney to guide you through the criminal felony proceedings in Oklahoma. The sooner your attorney gets involved in your case, the sooner they can start fighting for you. If you have been charged with a crime, please contact us for a free consultation on your case.