Navigating the Criminal Justice System can be a daunting task for a person who has never been in trouble before. One of the most frustrating aspects is the lack of information or direction on what could happen next. This is a short guide on the life cycle of a criminal case.
Every criminal case starts with an arrest. An arrest may or may not include a trip to the county jail. Sometimes on misdemeanor offenses, the officer may elect to give you a Notice to Appear in Court rather than take you downtown. If he gives you a Notice to Appear, consider it your lucky day (sort of?). With a Notice to Appear, you will not have to post a bail bond, and your name will not show up on most arrest lists that are picked up by the local newspapers, publications and online resources.
If you are brought to jail, you will be booked and processed. If a bond has been set, you can generally be bonded out within a matter of hours. Bond can be posted in the form of paying cash, utilizing a bondsman’s services for a fee (generally 10% of the total bond amount), or by putting up property as collateral.
If a bond has not been set, or if you cannot afford the bond, you will attend your First Appearance in Court within 24 hours of your arrest. In many jurisdictions, you will see the judge on a tv screen while you remain at the county jail. At the First Appearance, the judge will tell you the charges you were arrested on and the bond amount, and he will appoint a public defender if you so request one. Judges in some jurisdictions will conduct a bond hearing at this time to determine if the bond as initially set is appropriate. Judges in other jurisdictions will not change the bond at First Appearance.
Within a few days, the Clerk of Court will forward the arrest affidavit and bond information to the State Attorney’s Office. The State Attorney will appoint a lawyer to prosecute the case. Generally, within a few weeks, the prosecutor will decide whether to prosecute you for the crimes the officer arrested you for, or whether to add or remove charges. It is important to know that if the prosecutor adds charges, you will need to be rebooked on them and you may need to post another bond. One of the most important timeframes in your case is the time prior to the prosecutor filing formal charges against you. A good lawyer will begin reaching out to the prosecutor at this time to see what if anything can be done to minimize the damage, unless there is a strategic reason not to. Once the charges are actually filed, convincing the prosecutor to change or remove charges can become more difficult.
Within about a month from the arrest, you will have an arraignment. The purpose of the arraignment is for you to plead Guilty or Not Guilty. The judge will appoint a public defender at this time if you so request one. It is very important for you to have at least consulted with a lawyer prior to your arraignment to get an idea about what you might be looking at. We plead all of our clients Not Guilty upon being retained, absent unique circumstances. This alleviates the necessity for you to appear at the arraignment hearing.
The Discovery Phase and Motions Practice follow an arraignment. A good lawyer should file a demand for all of the evidence against you. The prosecutor will have 15 days to respond and provide a copy of all evidence in his possession once the formal charges are filed. This should include witness names, addresses and statements, physical evidence, reports and even evidence that might tend to show you are not guilty. In reviewing the discovery, if it becomes apparent that the facts are not in dispute and they do not amount to a crime, you may be in a position to file a Motion to Dismiss. If it appears that some evidence may have been obtained improperly, you may be in a position to file a Motion to Suppress that evidence. Other motions may also become apparent upon reviewing the discovery.
Most jurisdictions will require you to attend some type of calendar call within about a month after the entry of a Not Guilty Plea. At this hearing, the judge will want to know if you are ready for trial, if you would like to change your plea to Guilty or No Contest, or if you need more time to prepare. If you need more time, the judge will decide whether or not to give it to you, or to just set your case for a trial. If you do not request a delay or in some other way delay the case, the prosecutor must bring your case to trial within 90 days for a misdemeanor, 175 days for a felony. If that does not occur, you may take steps to push the case to trial immediately, or possibly have the case discharged. This is a tricky concept that requires some precision. It is best to speak with your lawyer in depth about the possibilities and consequences prior to initiating any litigation with regard to the speedy trial rules. If you request a delay at the calendar call, the judge will generally place your case on an upcoming calendar call a month or two out. Your request to delay will do away with the speedy trial requirements.
Once the discovery phase has been completed and all pretrial motions are resolved, the case will be ready for trial. You may receive plea offers along this process, and you should communicate with your lawyer regularly about your options. If you do not want to take a deal, but you also do not want to go to trial, you can enter a plea to the Court. With a plea to the Court you are asking the judge to decide what the appropriate sentence will be. The judge can sentence you up to the maximum for the charges filed against you. If you do not want to take a deal or plea open, and if there is no legal reason for your case to be dismissed, you will have a trial.
During the trial, the judge will be the decider of law (which laws apply), and the jury made up of people from within the community will decide which facts to believe. The jury will evaluate the evidence, including the witness statements to determine if the prosecutor has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt. If he has not, then you will be determined Not Guilty and you will be discharged. If he has, you will be found guilty and the judge will determine the appropriate sentence. At the sentencing hearing, you can present evidence for mitigation purposes and you may have family and friends testify on your behalf.
Usually, a misdemeanor takes about 3 months from start to finish. A felony will generally take about 6 months to a year.
The overview above is just that – an overview. While most cases follow a similar track, every Defendant has a different situation, goal and expectation. The lawyers of the Ferraro Law Group have handled thousands of criminal cases since 1974. While we have seen most of the issues that arise in a criminal case, we take a customized approach to each client’s needs. We pride ourselves in managing smaller case loads so that we can keep you informed and involved at every step of the process. If you are currently facing prosecution on the Treasure Coast or Palm Beaches of Florida, or if you need a referral for a great lawyer in your area, please do not hesitate to contact us today.