How a Criminal Case in Rutherford County Begins
There are two different ways a criminal case can begin: (1) the state issues a warrant through General Sessions Court; or (2) the state takes a case directly to the Grand Jury. The most common way that a criminal case begins is by a warrant through General Sessions Court, but it is also important that you are familiar with a case being taken directly to the Grand Jury.
Warrants Through General Sessions Court
When a warrant is issued, it must allege sufficient facts to show a probable cause basis for why an individual is being charged with a particular offense. Once a warrant has been taken out, the court sets an initial court date. Almost always, the Court will give each side one opportunity to continue that court date if they need to do so. Additionally, the initial court date gives you an opportunity to have your case negotiated with the district attorney.
If your case is a Misdemeanor, it can be settled in General Sessions. This is true even if you are charged with a felony, but negotiate that charge down to a Misdemeanor. If you reach a settlement agreement, you can enter your guilty plea in General Sessions Court, which effectively ends your criminal case.
However, if your case or plea deal involves a Felony, the General Sessions Court cannot accept a plea of guilty. This is because General Sessions Courts only have jurisdiction to accept guilty pleas for Misdemeanors; they do not have jurisdiction to accept guilty pleas for Felonies. A Felony is any crime punishable by one year or more, while a Misdemeanor is any crime punishable by less than one year (typically eleven months and twenty-nine days or less).
If you have a Felony in General Sessions Court, you have three choices: (1) you can try and have your case negotiated to a Misdemeanor; or (2) you can request a preliminary hearing; (3) you can waive a preliminary hearing and have your case bound over to the grand jury.
If you successfully negotiate your case to a Misdemeanor, then the General Sessions Court has jurisdiction to hear your case as if was were a Misdemeanor from the beginning. Recall from above that General Sessions Courts have jurisdiction to accept guilty pleas for Misdemeanors.
If you request a preliminary hearing, the court will set a date on which you must return for your hearing. In short, a preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing that occurs in General Sessions Court. The State must put on what proof they have against an accused and the accused, through their counsel, has an opportunity to cross examine any witnesses for the State. At the conclusion, the Judge must determine three things to send a case to the Grand Jury: (1) probable cause that the charged crime occurred; (2) probable cause that the charged crime occurred in Rutherford County; and (3) probable cause that the accused committed the crime. If the judge finds all three of these things, then he sends the case to the Grand Jury.
If you waive your preliminary hearing, then your case will be bound over to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury is not a jury trial. Instead, the Grand Jury is where twelve people meet to hear the district attorney present its case. It is important to note that the accused is not entitled to be present. After hearing the district attorney’s case, the Grand Jury is then charged with finding the three elements described above: (1) that the charged crime probably occurred; (2) that the charged crime probably occurred in Rutherford County; and (3) that the accused probably committed the charged crime. If the Grand Jury finds these three things, it issues an Indictment. Your case then moves to the Circuit Criminal Court.
Direct Grand Jury Hearing
As mentioned above, the second way to begin a criminal case is directly at the Grand Jury. If a case begins at the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury conducts the same proceeding described in the preceding paragraph. If the Grand Jury finds that the three elements are met, then it issues a Sealed Indictment. Your case then moves to the Circuit Criminal Court. Note that the difference between a Sealed Indictment and an Indictment is that a Sealed Indictment merely indicates where your case began.
Circuit Criminal Court
In Circuit Court, there are three court dates that occur in all cases: (1) the Arraignment date; (2) the Discussion day; and (3) the Plea day.
On the Arraignment date, the state gives you a copy of your indictment, allows you to enter a formal plea of not guilty, and acknowledges that you will return on all future court dates. On the Discussion day, the State is required to present you with a written offer to settle your case and, if you have filed a Motion for Discovery, the state is required to give you its discovery materials. On the Plea day, you have an explicit opportunity to settle your case. If you fail to settle your case on the Plea day, then the case is set for trial.
If a case is set for trial, there will be miscellaneous Motion days, in which counsel will argue over matters that may not be proper for a jury to hear. An example of such a motion is a Motion to Suppress, in which one party, typically the Defendant, argues that a particular piece of evidence should be excluded from the trial. If the Court were to hear a Motion to Suppress, it would happen at a particular date, usually well before the trial.
At trial, both sides will present their respective case to a jury comprised of local citizens. A jury is comprised of twelve individuals who listen to the evidence presented and ultimately return a verdict. The legal burden that the state must prove in a jury trial is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is defined as “that doubt engendered after an investigation of all the facts and all the evidence and an inability to let your mind rest easily as to the certainty of guilt." The state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as to each and every element of the charged crime. Additionally, a jury verdict must be unanimous to be final. If a jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict, it is considered a “hung jury."
If a jury returns a verdict of Not Guilty on all charges, then that is the end of the criminal proceeding (with the exception that you are entitled to have your record expunged). Under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, the state is not permitted to appeal or again charge you for the same offense after you have been acquitted.
If a jury returned a verdict of Guilty on any one charge, then the Court schedules a Sentencing Hearing. At the Sentencing Hearing, the court determines the length of the sentence and how much jail time is to be served.
If you are found guilty of any one charge, you are entitled to file a Motion for a New Trial within thirty days of the final judgment. The purpose of a Motion for a New Trial is to raise any issues that may not have been properly ruled upon at trial. If the trial court denies the Motion for a New Trial, you can appeal, but such an appeal would be purely based upon the transcripts from the trial and any Motion hearing dates.
I hope that this guide has provided you with some important insight into the Rutherford County criminal process. Unfortunately, the Rutherford County criminal process is complex and can be quite confusing to the average person. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, you should contact an experienced attorney who will fight aggressively on your behalf.
About Joe M. Brandon, Jr.
Joe M. Brandon, Jr. (https://plus.google.com/100345598952022365649?rel=author) is an experienced attorney who has served the citizens of Rutherford County and surrounding areas since 1994. Joe takes pride in treating his clients as something other than a case number. He works hard to ensure that every client identifies and achieves their goals. You can contact Joe Brandon at (615) 890-2399 or online at www.murfreesborolawyer.com.