Life of a Criminal Case - What to expect if you've been accused of a crime in Florida
This guide is for those who have been arrested, issued a Notice to Appear, charged with or accused of a crime in Florida. This guide generally covers the life of a criminal case and each individual is advised to speak to a qualified defense attorney regarding the unique aspects of his or her case.
Arrest, Notice to Appear, and initial appearanceYour criminal case can usually start one of three ways.
Arrest: Police officers may make an arrest with a valid warrant. A valid warrant is one signed by a Judge with probable cause to believe that the individual the warrant is issued for committed a particular crime.
Police officers can also make arrests without a warrant when (1) the officer knows that a warrant for your arrest has been issued and is still in effect, (2) when the arresting officer has good reason to believe that a felony has been or is being committed and that you are the person who has or is committing it, or (3) when a misdemeanor is committed in the presence of the officer. Exceptions for the third option are the crimes of shoplifting, carrying a concealed weapon other than a firearm, and possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis.
Once arrested, an individual is brought before a judge for their initial appearance within 24 hours. At the initial appearance the Judge may set bond, appoint counsel, and entertain pleas of guilty, not guilty, or no contest as well as establish probable cause for the arrest.
Note: Arrests should not be confused with mere detention. Please see my guide on "Three Levels of Police Encounters" to understand your rights related to interactions with law enforcement officers.
Notice to Appear: A notice to appear ("NTA") is a written order issued by a law enforcement officer in lieu of physical arrest requiring a person accused of violating the law to appear in a designated court or governmental office at a specified time and date. When one receives an NTA, they are officially charged with a crime, as the NTA serves as formal charging document. NTA's are issued in lieu of arrest, meaning instead of arresting you, the officer chose to simply issue you with the NTA which charges you with the crime and informs you of your court date. This court date is called an arraignment (See below). The NTA may be issued for non-violent misdemeanor crimes, such as possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis or petite theft, among others. The NTA serves as a formal charging document, so once it is received, the individual who received it is officially charged with a crime. An NTA should contain the court and time of your arraignment date, and you will be asked to sign and finger print the NTA. There will also be other information on your NTA. If you sign a NTA but fail to appear at your court date or do not hire a private attorney in time to waive your appearance, a warrant for your arrest will be issued.
Non-Arrest or "at large" cases: Often times, Law Enforcement officers will decline to arrest an individual or to issue them with a Notice to Appear, but instead, will write a formal police report and document the incident and then forward all of the paperwork to the State Attorney's Office for review. These cases are referred to as "at large" cases because the individual is not yet charged, nor were they arrested, so they are "at large." The State Attorney's Office will review the paperwork sent by the officer, including but not limited to the officer's probable cause affidavit, and then will make a filing decision on the case.
Information Charged and Arraignment DateWithin a few days of your First Appearance, the Clerk of Court will forward the probable cause/arrest affidavit and all bond information to the State Attorney's Office. The State Attorney's Office will then assign a prosecutor to your case based on their internal system. Each State Attorney's Office throughout Florida does this a little differently. Generally, within a few weeks or sometimes days, the assigned prosecutor or the State Attorney's Intake unit will make a charging decision based on the arrest affidavit and other information available to the prosecutor. If the State Attorney chooses to file charges against you (if you were given an NTA then you have already been charged) then they will file what is known as an "information." An information is a charging document. Once an information has been charged against you or you have received an NTA, you will be given your first court date. The prosecutor may charge you with the same crime as you were arrested for, a lesser crime, a more sever crime, or even add charges to the information that you were not arrested for. If the prosecutor adds charges it is important to know that you may need to be rebooked on the new charges and post another bond. Your first court date (other than your First or initial appearance) is called your Arraignment. The Arraignment will take place about a month after your arrest. At the Arraignment a Judge with jurisdiction over your case will inform you of the charges against you, appoint a public defender or inquire into whether you have retained a private attorney or wish to do so, and ask you to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest to the charges.
Your attorney may waive your appearance at your arraignment on your behalf.
It is vitally important to retain competence defense counsel as soon as possible after your arrest or NTA is issued. If you can obtain a good defense attorney, they will begin to reach out to the prosecutor and begin negotiations prior to any charges being filed so that you may obtain the best result possible and to minimize damage.
NOTE: If you have been charged with a DUI, your traffic citation will serve as the charging document. If you have been charged with a DUI in Florida, I highly advise you contact competent legal counsel immediately.
Pre-Trial Conference and Pre-Trial MotionsAfter the Arraignment, the Prosecutor will supply your Defense Attorney with discovery, such as all police reports and witness reports, witness lists, exhibit lists, all videos, and all other evidence in the State's possession, IF your Defense Attorney filed a demand for discovery. Your Defense Attorney may then review the discovery and formulate a plan to weaken and attack the State's case. This can be done by using pre-trial motions. This is known as the discovery phase and motions phase post-arraignment. A good defense attorney will file a demand for discovery and obtain all of the evidence against you. The Assistant State Attorney (the prosecutor) will then have 15 days to respond to the demand and provide a copy of all evidence in his or her possession regarding the filed charges. This will include a witness list, an exhibit list, any and all papers or writings as well as videos and all other physical evidence against you. After the arraignment, and during the discovery phase, your Defense Attorney will both formulate a plan of attack against the State's case while continuing to negotiate on your behalf. You may likely be given an offer to resolve the case by the State at this point or earlier in the process. It is important at this time in the process to speak to your attorney to get a realistic picture of what the offer means, what the maximum sentence is for the crime you are accused of, and what the strength of your case is.
The pre-trial conference is used by the Judge to either continue a case to give the parties more time to argue pre-trial motions or to continue to negotiate, set a trial on the trial docket, or set a plea date to resolve the case.
Prior to your pre-trial conference, your attorney may wish to file a motion to suppress, motion to dismiss, motion for continuance, motion in limine, or other pre-trial motion. A motion to suppress is used when the government made due process mistakes regarding your constitutional rights during their investigation. A motion to suppress is used to "suppress" the evidence that was obtained illegally, and all evidence that was the "fruit of the poisonous tree" of such illegal search or seizure will also be suppressed. A motion to dismiss is used to dismiss your case based on the facts alleged when applied to the current law. A motion in limine is used to keep out irrelevant evidence or evidence that is substantially more prejudicial than probative in value. A motion to continue is used to ask the court for more time before trial for good cause. A good criminal defense trial lawyer will use these motions artfully to either weaken the State's case against you or apply pressure on the prosecutor to give you a good offer to resolve should your case warrant the use of such pre-trial motions.
Your appearance at most pre-trial conferences can be waived by your attorney, allowing you to continue to go to work, deal with child care, and otherwise live your life without major disturbance.
TrialOnce the discovery and motion phase is complete and all pre-trial motions have had a hearing and have been ruled on by the Court, your case will be ready for trial. If your case was not dismissed or resolved through a plea deal prior to trial, a trial will be held before either 6 to 12 of your peers (the jury) or a judge, depending on the crime charged and whether you are an adult or juvenile for legal purposes. At this stage in the process, the State will have either revoked all offers or may still be attempting to resolve the case with your attorney. It is important for you to speak with your attorney regarding your options related to the plea offer from the State, the strength of your case at trial, and the possibility of making a plea to the bench (the Judge) directly.
At the trial, each side will conduct what is known as voir dire, or jury selection, and opening statements. After opening statements, the State will put on its case-in-chief. During the State's presentation of its case, the Defense will have the opportunity to cross examine the State's witnesses and challenge their exhibits. After the State rests, the Defense may move for a Judgment of Acquittal or other similar motion stating that the State failed to put on and prove a prima facie case. The Judge will rule on such motions. After the State's case-in-chief the Defense will be given an opportunity to also put on a case in chief if the Defense has any witnesses. It is the Accused's right not to take the stand and incriminate him or herself, so you do not have to testify on your behalf, although you can. Sometimes it is strategically warranted to have the accused testify on his or her behalf, but more often that not it is better to remain silent and exercise that right. The right to testify or not to testify is the accused's right, but advice from counsel should be taken into consideration as a good and experienced criminal defense attorney will likely have a feel and strategy for your case that may or may not involve the testimony of the accused.
At the conclusion of the presentation of all evidence, both parties will make closing arguments to the fact finder (the jury or judge). This is known as summation or closing arguments. Closing arguments are crucial for your attorney to put together the theory of your defense and to convince the jury to find you not guilty.
It is highly prudent to higher an attorney who is well experienced and versed in trial, who has a good personality for trial, and who has obtained results for their clients at trial. Even if you are unwilling to go to trial, your attorney's reputation in the court room will effect the plea offers the State is willing to give you.
AppealsAfter trial, if one were to lose, there may be grounds for appeal depending on how the case was tried and what is in the record of the court. Mistakes by the court may be appealed.
Contact UsIf you or a loved one has been accused of a crime in the Central Florida area, give me a call at 407-545-8217. We'll sit down in my office, discuss the unique aspects of your case, and find the best solution for you.