LEGAL GUIDE
Written by attorney Stephanie M. Kemen | Oct 15, 2013

Cook County: Brief Overview Of A Criminal Case

If you or a loved one has been arrested and/or charged with a crime, you may be at the beginning of a long journey through the Cook County criminal justice system. Cook County is the largest court system in Illinois and one of the largest in the world. Dealing with a case in Cook County can be confusing, intimidating and often quite frustrating. Sometimes, cases resolve quickly, while others can go on for decades. Although the process varies from case to case, the following is a very basic “timeline" of what happens with a criminal case in Cook County, Illinois.

Arrest

To make an arrest, police officers must have probable cause. Two common examples of probable cause are when an arrest warrant is issued or when the police see someone commit a crime. A person does not have to be in handcuffs to be considered under arrest. A person is legally under arrest the moment they are no longer free to walk away. I recommend that clients ask the police officer if they are free to leave. If the officer says no, they are considered to be in custody.

Once someone is in police custody, the police must inform them of their "Miranda" rights if they intend on asking them any questions. Miranda rights include the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. I recommend clients to clearly and politely inform the officer that they do not wish to speak with them without their lawyer present.

Generally, the police can hold someone for questioning until it is determined that there is enough evidence to charge them with a crime, usually up to 48 hours. If there is enough to charge someone with the crime, they will be taken to bond court.

Bond Court

Cook County Central Bond Court begins at 12 noon, 7 days a week. In the suburban districts, bond court usually begins at 9 a.m. and is held Monday through Friday.

In Cook County, bond court moves fast. The defendant usually only spends about 30 seconds in front of the judge. Therefore, it is very important that the defense attorney is able to quickly and efficiently inform the judge of any mitigating circumstances that may result in a lower bond. Depending on the defendant’s background and the seriousness of the crime, the judge will set a bond amount that they believe will ensure the defendant’s appearance in court.

If it is their first arrest and a non-violent crime, the judge will often give an “I" bond. This means the defendant does not have to post money to be released while the case is pending, but if they fail to show up for court, a warrant for their arrest will be issued.

If the crime is more serious or if the person has prior arrests, the judge will likely set a “D" or a “C" bond. If the judge orders a “D" bond (the most common in Cook County), 10% of the bond amount must be paid in order for the defendant to bond out (a $100,000 D bond would require $10,000 to post). A cash bond requires the full amount of the bond be posted in order to bond out. For information on bonding someone out of Cook County, visit the Sheriff's website.

Once the defendant's case is resolved, the bond money will be returned as long as the defendant appeared in court. The bond will either be returned to the person who originally posted it or it can be used to pay the criminal defense attorney. However, for D bonds, the County keeps 10%. So if $10,000 was posted, only $9,000 will be returned.

Preliminary Hearings and Grand Juries

If the arrest is for a felony offense, either a grand jury indictment or a preliminary hearing is required to formally charge for the crime. Once charged, either by information or indictment, the person will be given a future court date. On that date, the defendant will be assigned a judge for arraignment.

Preliminary Hearing

A preliminary hearing is when the prosecution shows the judge that a crime has probably been committed and the defendant probably committed that crime.

During the preliminary hearing, the judge generally hears only the testimony of the arresting officer. The purpose is to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed, not to determine the defendant's innocence or guilt. Unlike at a trial, hearsay is admissible at a preliminary hearing. If the judge finds probable cause, the defendant is then charged with the crime by an “information".

Grand Jury

Unlike preliminary hearings, grand jury proceedings are held in secret and no judge is present. Defendants and their attorneys are not permitted. The jurors determine if there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it.

After hearing the prosecutor’s evidence, the grand jury votes either a "true bill" or a "no bill." A true bill means the jury has determined that the state has presented enough evidence to formally charge the defendant. When a person is “indicted", it means they have been charged by a grand jury.

Arraignment

In Cook County, the arraignment is usually the defendant's first day in front of their assigned judge for the case. At the arraignment, the judge advises the defendant of the charges against them and the potential penalties associated with the charges. At this time, the defense attorney enters a “not guilty" plea on the defendant's behalf and files a motion for discovery.

Discovery

The Cook County prosecutors must provide the criminal defense attorney with copies of any and all police reports, statements from alleged victims and witnesses, and any physical evidence that they intend to use against the defendant. Depending on the complexity of the crime and the type of evidence, discovery can take months to complete. Often times, the assistant state’s attorneys have to order DNA evidence or lab reports. Once discovery is complete, the defense attorney can review the State’s evidence and discuss with the defendant whether or not he or she should proceed to trial.

Sometimes, depending on the evidence, the best solution is a plea agreement between the defense attorney and the prosecutor. Pleas vary greatly from case to case, and depend on several factors, including the seriousness of the crime and the strength of the prosecution's evidence.

Pre-Trial Motions & Trial

If, after consulting with their criminal defense attorney, the defendant decides they do not wish to plea guilty, their attorney will file any necessary pretrial motions. Pre-trial motions often address the evidence that may be presented at trial.

It is the defendant’s decision whether he wants a bench or a jury trial. A bench trial means that only the judge hears the evidence and the judge determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

A jury consists of 12 citizens of Cook County that are selected by the prosecutors and criminal defense attorney. If the defendant wishes to have a jury trial, the jury decides the outcome. In either case, the criminal defense attorney must understand how to present the defendant’s case and persuade a judge or jury that the defendant is not guilty.

At trial, both sides will take turns presenting evidence and questioning witnesses. At this stage, it is the state’s attorney’s burden to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a high burden. A defendant does not have to prove their innocence.

If the defendant is found not guilty, the case is over and can likely be expunged from the defendant’s record. However, if found guilty, the judge will either sentence the defendant immediately following the trial or set a date for sentencing.

Sentencing

If the defendant is found guilty of a crime at trial or after a plea, the judge must impose a sentence. Sometimes, a sentence is a period of supervision and a fine. Other times, a sentence requires a period of incarceration. Depending on the crime, Cook County Judges may also sentence defendants to probation, treatment classes, community service and/or pay restitution to any victims. The defense attorney can argue for a sentence that is lower than the sentence the state’s attorney is asking for.

If found guilty of a misdemeanor, sentencing is usually done immediately. However, serious felonies are usually continued for sentencing to allow both the defense attorney and the state’s attorney to prepare their arguments. Factors such as the defendant's background, age, work history, seriousness of the crime and the effect the crime had on victims are just a few things the judge may consider prior to sentencing.

Appeal

If there was a legal error that caused the defendant to be convicted and/or sentenced unfairly, they have the right to appeal. Successful appeals are very rare and can take years to complete.

Expungement/Sealing

A case may be eligible for expungement and/or sealing if the defendant was found not guilty or the case was dismissed. Also, a charge may be eligible for expungement if the defendant received supervision or a certain forms of probation offered in Cook County. Whether or not an arrest or charge can be expunged or sealed depends on several things, including the defendant's background, the type of crime and sentence imposed. If you or a loved one would like to have your record expunged or sealed, contact an attorney that handles expungements in Cook County.

Additional resources provided by the author

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Cook County Public Defender's Office

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