A brief look at the judicial process in a criminal matter from start to finish.
If you have never been charged with a crime before, and suddenly find yourself arrested, it can be a very stressful situation. After your arrest you will be processed at the local detention facility or jail. Obviously your immediate goal is to obtain a reasonable bond and get out of jail. A pretrial officer will visit you within hours of your arrest to conduct an interview and obtain information about you. This information, such as where you live, who you live with, where you work, etc., will be provided to a district court judge and he will assign a bond amount based on the circumstances and the severity of the alleged crime. If you cannot afford the bond that the judge assigned it is important that you have an attorney to represent you at your first court appearance (an arraignment) so that a motion to amend the bond can be presented to the court. The judge has to be persuaded as to why he should lower the bond and you do not want to face that challenge alone.
Felonies versus Misdemeanors
If you have been charged with a felony your case will only briefly be in district court. All you are afforded in district court is an initial arraignment, where the judge lists the charges against you and advises you of your Constitutional rights, and a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is where the judge will make a determination as to whether or not there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and you may have committed it. This is not a trial even though a police officer will be testifying as to what happened. If the judge finds probable cause your case will be bound over to the grand jury who will also make a determination as to probable cause. If the grand jury finds probable cause as well your case will then be set for an arraignment date in circuit court. This is the court that handles felonies.
With Misdemeanors, you stay in district court. After your arraignment, where you are able to enter an initial plea of "not guilty", you case will be set for a pretrial conference. At this point in time your attorney can file a motion for discovery and possibly a motion to suppress the use of evidence (which may have been illegally seized) at your trial. If the evidence cannot be suppressed and the charges dismissed for lack of proof, you have to decide whether to take a "plea deal" or take the matter to a trial.
Guilty Plea versus Trial
Throughout your case, your attorney must constantly prepare your case as if it is going to be presented to a jury. However, in tow with that your attorney should also be attempting to negotiate the very best plea offer he can with the prosecutor in case you do not want to risk a jury throwing you in jail for a while; maybe a long while.
Negotiating a plea can be tricky. Your attorney needs to put your case in the most favorable light possible, and craft his argument to the prosecutor in such a way that the state's chance of success is far less than yours. The possibility of accomplishing this can be more difficult in some circumstances as opposed to others - it just depends upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case. But your attorney should use all evidence available to ensure, at the end of the day, that he is squeezing the very best deal he can from the prosecutor.
The Total Case
Lastly, it is important to remember that each and every criminal charge, case and client is different. What I have provided is a quick snap shot of what can be expected. It by no means represents all of the aspects involved in working up a criminal case from beginning to end. Hiring an experienced attorney who will devote the time and energy necessary to obtain the best possible outcome is paramount. Criminal charges often follow an individual throughout the rest of their lives. Don't risk it - hire an attorney.
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