If you have been arrested or cited with a criminal offense, one of the first questions you probably have is about the criminal process. Here’s a very general outline of how a criminal case proceeds in Arizona.
If the police believe that they have enough probable cause to arrest a person for a crime, they will either place the person under arrest, or issue the person a citation with a promise to appear in court on a certain date. If the person is taken to jail, he or she will be transported to court for their first court date, unless they are released on some basis.
The very first time a person is seen by a judge is called an initial appearance. Charges may or may not be filed at this point. Once charges are actually filed, the person will again appear before a judge for an arraignment.
If the case is a felony, the next hearing will be a preliminary hearing, in which the government has the burden of proving probable cause to support the charges. Depending on the jurisdiction, the preliminary hearing could be waived, because the State may opt to take the case to a grand jury to prove probable cause.
If probable cause is found by either a judge or a grand jury, the next hearing is an arraignment. At the arraignment, a judge must advise the person of the charges, and address the issue of conditions of release. The court will generally enter a not guilty plea for the person at the arraignment, if there is no lawyer representing the person.
Case Management Conference or Pretrial Conference
After the arraignment, the court will set either a pretrial conference, or a case management conference, depending on the circumstances. This is the first hearing where the defendant, his or her lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge all discuss the case, whether there are any legal issues that need to be addressed, whether the case will go to trial, and any other legal issues. It is not uncommon for there to be several pretrial conferences or case management conferences in a criminal case.
At this point, the case may go to trial. At trial, the government always has the burden to prove that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. If the judge or the jury finds the defendant not guilty, then the case is over. If there is a finding of guilt, then the case proceeds to sentencing.
At sentencing, the judge will impose a sentence based on the law in effect at the time of the offense. Depending on the type of case, the criminal history of the defendant, and other factors, the judge may exercise his or her discretion when sentencing a person. In some situations, however, the law may require that a judge sentence a person to a specific sentence.
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