The criminal case normally begins upon a person's arrest or issuance of a citation. Once a person is arrested, they will be taken to jail and will be "booked" on the charge. Once at the jail a bond will be set and an initial court date will be selected as well. In the event of a citation, the citation will include information regarding the person's court date as well as, in the case of some traffic offenses, a fine which may be paid in lieu of appearing in court.
General Sessions Arraignment
A person's first court appearance relative to a criminal charge is typically in General Sessions Court and is called an arraignment. It is at this court proceeding that a person may receive a formal reading of their charge(s) and additionally it is where the judge will ask the person if he/she intends to hire an attorney, needs an attorney appointed, or wishes to waive their right to an attorney and represent him/herself. The judge will then ask the person if they wish to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the person enters a not guilty plea, the judge will then schedule another court date on which to hold a preliminary hearing or trial. Also, if a person requests time to hire an attorney the judge will usually allow that person at least thirty days to hire an attorney before returning to court. Some lawyers refer to this arraignment as an "arrangement" because arrangements are made for an attorney and for subsequent court dates.
Preliminary Hearing or General Sessions Trial
When a person faces a felony charge in General Sessions Court they are entitled to a preliminary hearing in order for the State to attempt to prove to the General Sessions judge that "probable cause" exists as it relates to the charge(s), i.e. that it is more likely than not, or "probable," that the person accused committed the offense(s) with which they are charged. Establishing probable cause does not require much evidence and as a result the General Sessions judge usually finds that probable cause has been established. If the judge finds "probable cause" the case will then be "bound over" for consideration by the grand jury.
When a person is charged with a misdemeanor offense, that person may request that the General Sessions judge conduct a trial. The State would then have to prove the person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the judge would make the determination whether the State had done so. A person may appeal the case to Criminal Court if unhappy with the outcome.
After a case has been "bound over" from General Sessions Court, the next stop is the Grand Jury. A Grand Jury is a group of citizens who meet and consider evidence that the State of Tennessee presents relative to criminal cases. The goal of the State is to present enough evidence to the Grand Jury that the Grand Jury agrees with the General Sessions judge that "probable cause" has been established relative to the criminal charge(s). If the Grand Jury does find that the State established probable cause then it will issue an Indictment, also known as a "True Bill," and the case will continue to an arraignment in Criminal Court. If the Grand Jury does not find based upon the State's evidence that probable cause has been established then it will issue a "No True Bill" which ends the case against the defendant related to that charge.
Criminal Court Arraignment
If a person has been Indicted by the Grand Jury their next court appearance will be in Criminal Court and is also known as an arraignment. Similar to the General Sessions Court arraignment, the Criminal Court judge may read the charge against a person and inquire whether they intend to hire an attorney, need one appointed to represent them, or wish to waive their right to an attorney and represent him/herself. The Criminal Court judge will then schedule other court dates for various things like a hearing on motions, plea date, and trial date. If a person needs time to hire an attorney the Criminal Court judge will typically allow the person at least thirty days to attempt to do so before returning to court.
After the arraignment is when a person's attorney may file motions requesting various things in preparation for trial like a copy of the Discovery (evidence) the State intends to use, exculpatory (favorable) evidence, suppression of certain evidence, and many other things depending on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. Once these pretrial motions have been addressed, and in the case that no plea agreement is reached prior to trial, the case proceeds to trial.
Criminal Court Trial
Every person has the right to a jury trial when charged with a criminal offense. The jury is composed of twelve citizens who must reach a unanimous decision that a person is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt in order for a person to be convicted. At the trial the State has the burden to prove a person guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Once the State has presented its case, the defense presents its case, and then the jury considers the evidence and reaches a verdict. If a person is convicted the judge will then conduct sentencing. If a person is found not guilty then the case is concluded. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict then a "mistrial" is declared and the case is temporarily stopped while the State decides whether or not to conduct a new trial. If the State decides to retry the case then the case goes through Pre-Trial Proceedings again.
If a person is unhappy with the outcome of a Criminal Court Trial, that person may appeal the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. This must be done quickly after the conclusion of the Criminal Court Trial phase. If the Court of Criminal Appeals denies the appeal then the person may appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. If the Tennessee Supreme Court denies the appeal then the person may appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. If the Supreme Court of the United States denies the appeal then the case is concluded.