Anatomy of a Michigan Criminal Case

Posted about 4 years ago. Applies to Michigan, 1 helpful vote



Police are Called

The police either witness an offense or they are called by a citizen. After investigating, the police may write a ticket, arrest on the spot, or refer to the prosecuting official for the jurisdicition for an arrest warrant.


When Can I Be Arrested?

If the officer witnessed an offense, or she has probable cause to believe that a limited class of misdemeanor or any felony has been committed. Otherwise, the matter is referred to a prosecutor who decides whether a warrant should be authorized. After that, a magistrate or judge of the District Court will finally issue an arrest warrant after determining if probable cause exists.


Probable Cause?

"Probable cause" is not a finding of guilt or innocence, but rather determination that some credible evidence exists to charge a person with an offense. You've seen that probable cause has to be found by the officer, a prosecutor and a judicial officer. In theory, after all these checks, it would seem that a case would have to be fairly solid before an arrest was made. The reality is that these officials are only human, subject to the pressures and deadlines inherent in a large criminal justice system. It is the job of the defense attorney to challenge the People every step of the way, to use the protections written into our most cherished laws for the purpose of insuring that the innocent are never victimized.



This is the suspect's first official contact with the court. From now on, he is the Defendant. At the arraignment, the Defendants is advised of the charges against him as listed in the Complaint, as well as his constitutional rights. Some of the rights include representation, acalling witnesses, testifying or remaining silent, the presumption of innocence, and the People's burden of proof. All are important; none should be waived at this point. Except in cases of murder or treason, all Defendants are entitled to bail (pretrial release), after a bond is posted. The assistance of an attorney is crucial here, and can be the difference between a bond amount impossible to reach or walking out of the courtroom that day. In any event, a number of conditions will be placed on the bond, restricting the Defendant's ability to travel, consume alcohol, or have contact with other people. Your lawyer can explain these and fight to have the more frivolous conditions stricken.


Pretrial Procedure

The system is designed so that the parties can, as Isaiah has it, "come and reason together." Many cases, frankly, do not need to be tried. For first-offenses, in many instances, pleas may be taken under advisement or deferred. Depending on the facts of your case, a plea may never be entered or subject to dismissal. In other cases, agreements to limit jail time may be made. If, however, it appears that you do need to put your case before a jury, discovery of the facts should be ordered, witnesses interviewed, and motions for dismissal brought. This is the phase of the case where all that happens.


Preliminary Examination (Felonies Only)

A word about the preliminary examination is in order. In virtually all Michigan felony prosecutions, the Defendant has a right to a hearing for yet another "probable cause" determination. While the Defendant has the right to have this exam within 14 days of arraignment, most waive it as the burden of proof is so low. In some cases, this could be a mistake. This is the only opportunity the defense has for getting testimony from key witnesses under oath. At a trial, being able to show the contradictions in their stories could make all the difference. Consult your attorney about the importance of the preliminary examination in your case. If the hearing is waived or held and probable cause is found, you are "bound over" to Circuit Court for trial or some other disposition, which may include further motions and pretrial conferences. Note: Some courts schedule a pre-exam conference, which acts as a pretrial conferences for purposes of plea bargaining or discovery.


What Is With All These Conferences!?

You might have noticed that the parties meet an awful lot before trial. This is to your benefit, as the People's case (and resolve), may weaken over time, and valuable information and evidence can be collected by your lawyer.



After all attempts at settlement or dismissal have failed, the case proceeds to trial. In misdemeanor cases, six persons comprise the panel; twelve will hear felony cases. In Michigan, the jury must agree unanimously that the People have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, each and every element of the crimes charged. The Defendant is not required to prove anything, but he may want to introduce evidence that challenges the People's case. At the trial, after opening statements, the People call their witnesses; they should be cross-examined vigorously to find flaws in their stories or to even expose outright lies. The Defendant may call witnesses after the Prosecutor rests. At closing, the People get two chances to speak to the jury, while the Defendant gets only one. Having a lawyer who's done this before is starting to look pretty important, doesn't it?


After the Trial

The Defendant's innocence is not at issue. The goal is for the jury to find him "NOT GUILTY." Once this verdict is announced, the Defendant is acquitted and he is free to go. A guilty verdict, though, requires the judge to sentence the Defendant. District Court misdemeanor sentences can be for no more than a year in the county jail (depending on the charge), or two years probation. Circuit Court felonies can result in probation, jail or incarceration in the state's prison system for the amount of time allowed by law. Fines and costs, treatment programs, and a host of other conditions can also be ordered by any sentencing judge. Restitution can also be ordered in cases involving victims.

Additional Resources

A criminal case in Michigan can be a lengthy and complicated ordeal. In addition to the sound advice of an experienced attorney, you may wish to consult these resources.

Glossary of Selected Legal Terms

Michigan Court Rules: Criminal Procedure [PDF]

Michigan Penal Code

Michigan Vehicle Code

PAAM: Steps in a Criminal Case

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