How the System Works

This section is a basic overview of the court appearances you can expect in both felonies and misdemeanor cases.  Cases usually begin with either a summons, which is a document issued by a police officer or the court containing a future court date for your first appearance before a judge, or by arrest.  For more information on arrest, see Arrest.

If you have been arrested and have not posted bond, your first court appearance will be a bond appearance before a county court judge.  You will be advised of your rights at that hearing, and a lawyer can argue on your behalf for either a personal recognizance (PR) bond or a low cash, surety or property bond.  For more information on bond, see Bond.

PRETRIAL HEARING     (Misdemeanor)

If you are able to post the bond in a misdemeanor case, you will be given a pretrial conference date about a month away.  You or your attorney will meet with the district attorney to discuss a possible plea agreement.  If you are unable to post the bond, you will be given an in-custody pretrial hearing a day or two after the bond hearing.

PRELIMINARY HEARING/DISPOSITIONAL HEARING (Felony)

In a felony case, you will return to county court a few days after the initial bond hearing for the filing of criminal charges.  At this hearing you will receive a document with a list of all the charges against you, a statutory description of those charges, and the prosecution’s list of witnesses.   Your case will then be set for a hearing about a month away. Depending on the charges, you will either be set for a preliminary hearing or a dispositional hearing.  A preliminary hearing is a contested hearing where the prosecutor presents basic information about the case in order for a judge to determine if there is probable cause to believe that there was a crime committed and that you were one of the persons involved in the crime.  This is a basic hearing and the judge limits the amount of evidence that can be presented.  If the judge finds probable cause then the case is bound over to district court for an arraignment.   In a dispositional hearing, if you have agreed to a plea bargain to misdemeanor charges, you can enter the plea at that time and either receive a sentence or set the case for a sentencing hearing.  If you have not agreed to a disposition, or the plea bargain involves a plea to a felony, the case must be bound over to district court.

Arraignment (Felony)

An arraignment hearing is your first appearance in district court for a felony.  In a misdemeanor case, this is next hearing after you have had a pre-trial conference with the district attorney.   If you have reached a plea agreement with the district attorney, you will enter your plea at this hearing.  If you are still negotiating a potential plea, this hearing can be continued.  If you have decided to go to trial, you will enter a not guilty plea and the case will be set for trial and a motions hearing.  A motions hearing is held when your attorney contests such things as an illegal search or seizure, or any statements you made to police that may have been taken in violation of the law, etc.  There may be other motions’ issues that pertain to your particular case facts. 

TRIAL

Most cases do not go to trial but are resolved through negotiation and compromise (plea bargains).  In weak cases, your bargaining power with the prosecutor is greater and it is often possible to negotiate for greatly reduced charges or sentence concessions.  If the evidence you is strong, it may be in your best interest to accept a plea to reduced charges in order to reduce your exposure to a lengthy jail or prison sentence.    But some cases should and do go to trial when the prosecutor’s offer is not in the best interest of the accused person.  Although everyone is entitled to handle a case without an attorney, it is inadvisable to proceed to trial without an experienced criminal defense attorney, especially one who has extensive trial and courtroom experience.

Trials can be held before a judge alone or before a jury.  You have a right to a jury trial in most misdemeanors and all felony cases.  If you decide to have a trial in a misdemeanor case, the jury is comprised of 6 people.  In a felony case, there are 12 jurors.  It is the burden of the district attorney to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The defense is not required to put forth any evidence and the accused person does not have to testify at trial. The decision to put forth evidence or testify is one that is made jointly between your attorney and you.   At the conclusion of the evidence, a guilty verdict can only be returned if all the jurors agree.  The verdict must be unanimous.  If all the jurors do not agree, they can be a “hung jury” or “deadlocked” .  If this occurs, the judge must declare a mistrial and the prosecutor will be allowed to bring the case to trial again at a later time.  If you are found not guilty, the case is ended and you can never be tried for the charges again.

SENTENCING

If you decide to plead guilty to reduced charges or are found guilty at trial, you will be sentenced.  In a misdemeanor case, the sentencing often occurs the same date as the guilty plea or guilty verdict.  In felony cases, a sentencing date is set about six weeks later.  For more on sentencing, please  see sentencing.