Criminal Case Overview

When someone is arrested and charged with a crime it is typically a very stressful period in that person’s life. The anxiety of not knowing with what will happen next creates a tremendous amount of stress. This blog explains the typical process of a criminal case beginning with an arrest through the completion of the court case. The blog will hopefully provide some helpful guidance along the way as well.

Stage 1: Investigation

During this phase the police have either received a complaint of criminal activity or have initiated their own proactive investigation.  The police officers have a duty to fully investigate criminal matters and their focus is on gathering sufficient evidence to decide whether a crime was committed. If the police discover sufficient evidence, they will refer the case to the local district attorney and request criminal charges. If the police do not have sufficient evidence to prove that a crime was committed, they can either close the investigation, issue a non-criminal citation if warranted, or continue the investigation with the intent to gather additional evidence.

The best criminal defense attorneys will advise their clients to invoke their right to an attorney immediately if they are approached by the police or believe themselves to be at the center of a police investigation. Most people are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and are unaware of what the police can and cannot do during their investigations. Simply put, I advise all of my clients to invoke their right to an attorney when confronted with a police investigation. If the police would like to question you about a crime, I recommend doing so only after you have had an opportunity to consult an attorney.

Stage 2: The Charging Decision

Assuming the police gathered sufficient evidence to prove that a crime was committed; they will refer the matter for criminal charges.  Only state and federal prosecutors can issue criminal charges. Typically, the prosecutor will review the police reports, discuss the case with the officers, and perhaps consult with any victims or witnesses. If the prosecutor decides there is sufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges, he or she will file a complaint. The complaint is nothing more than the formal accusations against a person. It provides legal notice as to what a person is being charged with and the maximum possible penalties.

Most people incorrectly believe that the district attorney must comply with the police officer’s request for criminal charges. That is simply not true. The law gives prosecutors a great deal of discretion in deciding what charges, if any, to issue. In addition, although the prosecutor must consider the victim’s desires, he or she retains the authority to prosecute the case however he or she sees fit.  Simply put, if a victim does not want to “press charges” the district attorney can still decide to proceed with the case and the opposite is true as well.

Typically, a person can only be held in custody for 48 hours before a charging decision must be made. Within 48 hours of arrest, a judge must decide whether there is sufficient reason to warrant further detention. If there is insufficient evidence, the person must be released from custody.

If you are arrested and facing criminal charges it is important to discuss your case with a defense attorney as soon as possible. A good criminal defense attorney will advise the client through the post arrest/pre-charging phase of the case and attempt to negotiate with the district attorney to prevent criminal charges from being issued at all.

Stage 3: The Initial Appearance

If criminal charges are issued the first court hearing is called the initial appearance. At the initial appearance the judge will review the complaint and decide whether there is probable cause to justify the case continuing. This is a relatively low standard, which the government meets in the vast majority of cases. The judge will also set bail. The purpose of bail is to ensure you return to court so the case can proceed in a timely manner. The judge could impose cash bail meaning that you would have to post a specific amount of money in order to be released from custody. For example, if a judge ordered $500 cash bail, you would remain in custody until you, or someone on your behalf, posted the $500. If the money is posted, you would be released. As long as you comply with all of the bail conditions the money will be returned at the end of the case. If you violate the conditions of bail, the judge has the option of forfeiting the $500 and requiring additional money for release. The judge also has the option of allowing you to sign a personal recognizance bond, which does not require a posting of money.

The defendant will formally enter an initial plea to the charge(s) at the initial appearance. In virtually every case, the initial plea will be not guilty. After your plea has been received, the case will be scheduled for a pretrial conference if the charge is a misdemeanor or a preliminary hearing if you are charged with a felony.

The best criminal defense attorneys will scrutinize the criminal complaint to identify any deficiencies and assess the overall strength of the state’s case. Also, the attorney should be prepared to argue bail to ensure his or her client receives the most favorable bail condition. There is a huge difference between remaining in jail while the case is pending and being able to continue to live at home.

Stage 4: Preliminary Hearing

If you are charged with a felony you have the right to have a preliminary hearing. The historical purpose of the preliminary hearing was that it served as a screening tool designed to filter out weak or unprovable cases early on in the process. The reality is that the law for preliminary hearings has been watered down to the point where they no longer serve that screening function.

At some point after the preliminary hearing, the state will file an information. The information is simply the charging document in felony cases. It looks similar to the complaint and provides formal legal notice to the defendant of the charges against him or her and the maximum possible penalties. Although it is unlikely that a case will be dismissed at this stage, a sharp lawyer will use the hearing to identify weaknesses in the state’s case and set up helpful testimony that can be used later in the case.

Stage 5: Pretrial

After the initial appearance in a misdemeanor case, or the preliminary hearing in a felony case, the defense attorney will obtain all of the police reports and other evidence that the state intends to rely upon to prosecute the case. The best criminal defense attorneys will analyze every piece of evidence and will often times conduct their own investigation with the assistance of a private investigator. The defense attorney will use this phase to determine if there are opportunities to challenge the police conduct, which could result in the case being dismissed.

Besides investigating the case and filing motions in court, the defense attorney should discuss the case with the prosecutor and negotiate for the best possible result for the client. While prosecutors are not required to by law, they will typically negotiate on every case. This period of negotiation can produce very favorable results if done in a competent manner.

If a compromise cannot be reached with the prosecutor the case will proceed to trial. It is important to remember that every person in our country is presumed innocent. This means that the state must present sufficient evidence to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The beyond a reasonable doubt standard is the highest burden in the law.

This is often the longest phase of a case and the path a case takes at this point will depend on the specific facts of each case.

Stage 6: Trial

Most cases will resolve in some manner before trial, but it is extremely important to work with an attorney that has significant trial experience. There is an art and a science to arguing cases before a jury. The “science” relates to the specific legal rules that apply to a trial and the introduction of evidence. Experienced attorneys will use these rules to their advantage while presenting their case to the jury. The “art” of a trial relates to the defense attorney’s ability to connect with the jury on a personal and persuasive level.

The jury trial begins with jury selection. This process, often referred to as voir dire, begins when people are summoned to jury duty. A group of potential jurors are brought into court and briefly examined about their ability to be fair and impartial. Jury selection ends when there are at least 12 jurors who can decide the case (depending on the length and complexity of the case additional jurors can be seated as alternate jurors).

After the jury is selected, both sides will give an opening statement to the jury. During opening statements each side will tell the jury what they can expect to hear during trial. Although this is not the time to “argue” the case to the jury, skilled defense attorneys will use the opening statement to make a positive first impression on the jury and plant seeds of doubt.

After opening statements the district attorney will call his or her witnesses  Once all the witnesses have been heard, the state will rest.  The defense has no obligation whatsoever to present any evidence. Remember, we are all presumed innocent. In addition, you have an absolute right to testify, or not, if you so choose. That is an extremely important decision and should only be made after extensive consultation with your attorney. Once both sides have finished calling their witnesses, the case will proceed to closing arguments. The closing argument is the time when each side will attempt to convince the jury to vote according to their view of the case. The prosecutor will ask the jury to find you guilty and the defense will ask the jury for an acquittal.

After the closing arguments, the jury will begin to deliberate. There is no time limit on how long a jury can take to decide a case.  Sometimes a jury will reach a verdict in matter of minutes. In other cases, it may take a jury days or even weeks to reach a decision. In criminal cases, all 12 jurors must agree that you are guilty. This means that if even one juror does not agree with a guilty verdict you will be acquitted. In rare cases, a jury cannot reach a verdict. In that situation, there will typically be another trial at some point in the future.

If the jury returns a guilty verdict, the case will get scheduled for sentencing so the judge can impose a sentence, or the punishment. If the jury returns a not guilty verdict, the case is over.

Stage 7: Sentencing and Beyond

At a sentencing hearing, the judge is able to impose any sentence up to and including the maximum possible penalty allowed by law. This is an enormous grant of discretion that most judges take very seriously. There are a lot of factors that go into determining a specific sentence, but generally speaking the more serious the conduct the higher the potential for a jail or prison sentence.

It is imperative that the defense attorney thoroughly prepares for the sentencing hearing should the case get that far. Your liberty literally hangs in the balance. A well-developed sentencing argument is crucial and could make the difference between a jail/prison sentence and a much less restrictive outcome.

Depending on the outcome of the case, you could appeal if you believe the judge made a legal error. Some people mistakenly believe that the case will get better “on appeal.” This is rarely true. The appeal process is designed simply to correct any legal errors that may have occurred during the trial or pretrial phase of the case. It is typically very difficult to change the outcome of case on appeal although it does happen on occasion. The best criminal defense attorneys will focus their efforts on ensuring their clients never get convicted in the first place because they know the odds of succeeding on appeal are slim.

A criminal prosecution can have severe consequences that effect your employment, relationships and personal liberty. If you are charged with a crime and have specific questions about your case, please contact us so we can learn more about how we might be able to assist you.

Author: LawtonCates

At LawtonCates, we take fighting for accident victims very seriously. It’s how we’ve always done it for six-plus decades as a reputable South Central Wisconsin law practice. Our lawyers are passionate about helping people get back on their feet because we know their health, livelihood, and future are at stake.