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Austin & Central Texas Overview of Criminal Justice System - Austin, Travis County, Texas

Posted by attorney Robert Keates

Texas Criminal Law Guide

The Texas Criminal Justice system typically begins when an officer observes or is informed of a crime, thereby establishing probable cause to make an arrest. Once the arrest is made, the arrested person is either taken into custody (jail or local holding cell) or is cited and released with a written promise to appear in court to answer to the charge (often done on lesser charges).

From the arrest, depending on whether the defendant is in or out of custody, a criminal case can take different routes to the first formal court date, which is called an arraignment. If in custody, a defendant will be taken before a magistrate to determine the amount of bail before being given an arraignment. As mentioned above, if a defendant is out of custody and given a promise to appear, that individual will merely show up for the scheduled court date.

At arraignment, a defendant will verify his or her identity to the court, be informed of the charges, and enter a plea. The plea to be entered can be guilty, not guilty, or no contest, although a no contest plea is generally reserved for civil type cases (since it deals only with liability and has no bearing on a criminal plea, being considered the equivilent of a guilty plea for all criminal purposes).

Even if a defendant has intentions of pleading guilty, it is almost always a better option to plead not guilty while the criminal defense lawyer completes not only a review of all the legal documents and police reports, but also has a chance to conduct investigation and speak with the district attorney concerning a plea bargain.

It is often said, "If you're guilty, you plead guilty," however, such a comment misses the point concerning plea bargaining. For instance, imagine you are buying a car. After your own research, you decide a certain car is valued near $10,000, and you would like to find such a model, in good condition, for between $8,000 and $9,500. Once you select a car for purchase, the seller informs you the car is priced at $15,500. Would you instantly accept the offer and buy the car? Of course not. You would bargain with the seller for what you believe is a fair value.

In the context of a criminal case, it is very common for the defendant to not know the value of their case in terms of punishment; for example, what is the appropriate punishment for a person arrested for shoplifting when that person has a prior record containing two other theft related crimes as well as a DWI? Or is a fraud check case worth jail time when it is the first offense and the value of fraud is less than $30? These are the types of questions criminal defense attorneys know and answer everyday.

After arraignment, the next couple of court dates are sometimes called Pretrials, where the criminal defense attorney is gathering information via investigation and interviewing witnesses, as well as contacting expert witnesses if applicable. At the same time, the criminal defense attorney is contacting the district attorney concerning evidence and if the defendant requests, plea bargaining.

After the Pretrial stage is complete, and if the case is still progressing forward with either no luck at plea bargaining or rejections of offers by the defendant, the case progresses to jury trial, where motions to supress evidence can be argued prior to selecting a jury.

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