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The ins and outs of criminal proceedings explained step by step

The investigative stage

  • The 911 phone call activates or triggers the criminal investigation, and such calls can emanate from a number of sources – injured survivors of a criminal attack, police informants or witnesses at the scene of a crime. The call and its immediate fall out prompts investigators to search for clues or direct evidence linking the crime to suspects and their motives. Usually a head detective or lead detective will be assigned a case and he leads a team of investigators assigning each member different roles suited to move the investigation to a logical conclusion. It is natural that during interrogation of a suspect or witness the detective might ask questions that can be sensitive and affect one’s involvement in the crime; therefore it is best to restrict oneself to commenting on issues only in the presence of a skilled criminal defense lawyer.

Arraignment- the investigation is officially over and case is filed in court

  • On completion of all formalities connected to the preliminary and detailed investigation, the investigative officer is required to file an affidavit stating the bare facts of the case and informing the magistrate about the charges that are listed against the defendant. The magistrate studies the affidavit to ascertain whether an offense has been committed and whether the charges listed or action proposed are appropriate and warranted. The magistrate may then issue a warrant for a suspect’s arrest. The arraignment is the via media for the magistrate (court) to make the defendant aware of the charges held against him.

Presenting the case in court

  • The case and case files are signed sealed and delivered to the office of the District Attorney. Attorneys there go through the facts of the case to decide whether or not a case exists that the prosecution can follow up. At this stage the decision emerges whether the case goes to court as a misdemeanor or a full blooded trial before a grand jury for the more serious crimes or felonies.

The initial hearing, appearance or setting (decision regarding appointment of defendant’s counsel)

  • This setting takes place either in the magistrate court or where the case is being heard and the intended purpose is to ensure whether there is a lawyer appointed to represent the defendant. If for any reason there is no lawyer, this has to be explained to the judge and a form called the “Election of Counsel” needs to be filled in. If the defendant requires the court to appoint a lawyer to act on his behalf, an “Affidavit of Indigency” will need to be filed explaining to the judge why your circumstances are indigent and warrant a compassionate view. To decide the issue the court may convene a separate hearing.

The situation works in different ways. If you are arrested and incarcerated and unable to bond yourself out, the court has an easier task deciding that you can avail the services of an in house lawyer for free. But if you are freed after posting bail, the court can take the view that you have to reimburse the court for appointing a lawyer. Basically, what this means is that you can’t take it for granted that a court appointed lawyer will be arguing your case for free, and since you have chosen to forego appointing your own lawyer you could just as well end up paying the court for appointing a lawyer they choose to act on your behalf. So choosing a lawyer is an option that has to be considered carefully after weighing the benefits of a court appointed vis-à-vis the self-appointed lawyer.


The consultation setting that follows the return of indictment

  • Assuming that you have hired your own lawyer after posting bail, you will proceed to the consultation setting immediately after the return of indictment. Basically, this is the setting where the prosecution will be ready with a plea offer that means you (as defendant) will be offered the chance to plead guilty (sometimes to lesser charges) in exchange for a lighter sentence that spares you the rigors of a prolonged trial and perhaps harsher punishment. The modalities would have already be shared between the prosecution and the defense lawyer before this hearing so that you are aware what you are getting into or what you are basically agreeing to.

At this point it will be open to the defendant to agree to the plea offer and sign the “Written Plea Admonishment Document” and submit oneself to the sentencing, or agree with the plea but put in a plea to postpone sentencing. If the circumstances show that the case is unindicted and you have agreed to the plea offer but the sentencing is incomplete in the hearing, you will be required to execute the “Waiver of Indictment and Acceptance of Plea Agreement Offer.” Alternatively, if for valid reasons and by heeding defense counsel arguments you decide not to go ahead with the plea bargain, your case will be scheduled for pre-trial settings before the actual trial and evidence examination.

Disclosing evidence in the evidence exchange setting

  • This is the session where both parties contesting the trial will be allowed to present their evidences so that the guilt or innocence of the defendant can be projected and analyzed by the parties. If at this stage a plea bargain is proposed a plea proceeding could be scheduled to take matters forward, otherwise the case proceeds to a motion setting.

The defense moves motion settings

  • The defense counsel might feel that the circumstances leading to the arrest of the defendant or the piecing together of evidences was done in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of the defendant. In such cases the counsel for the defense might move a motion to suppress evidence. Whatever motions they file will be followed by a hearing. If at this point a plea bargain is considered, a plea proceeding can be held, otherwise the case proceeds to the status conference.

Last opportunity for defendant’s guilty plea – the status conference
Basically, this is the stage where the defense and the prosecution grapple with discussions and conduct negotiations to conclude a plea bargain offer. The defendant, if he so wishes, can plead guilty with or without a plea bargain offer during the status conference, but he will not be allowed another shot at a negotiated plea once the status conference is over.

If the defendant refuses to plead guilty then a “Status and Trial Management” form will be executed and submitted along with some more paperwork before the trial officially commences.

The big daddy of them all – the trial

  • What the defendant has gone through thus far are the pre-trial settings that are necessary to grapple with the case and evidence and come to a definitive conclusion whether or not to accept a plea bargain offer, and the trial commences only after this issue is irrevocably settled. The trial could be a trial by jury of six members if it’s a misdemeanor that is being contested, and a jury of twelve members if a felony is being contested.

To the unlettered observer what is immediately visible and which garners maximum publicity or notoriety is the trial, but as can be seen there are many steps to be gone through before ever reaching the trial stage. Each setting or stage is an opportunity for the defense and prosecution to hammer out a plea bargain so that the defendant can spare himself a trial and opt out with a lighter sentence. But when the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the defendant or where there is clear cut breach of constitutional rights, judges have dismissed charges even before they reached the trial stage.

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