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The Felony Criminal Process

Feb 10

The criminal process typically begins with a stop or an arrest. It could end at any point up to the time of sentencing, depending on the facts and circumstances of any particular case. The following is a brief explanation of the court appearances that are involved in a felony criminal case.

Once a complaint or warrant is issued, defendants are brought before the judge for an “initial appearance.” At this initial appearance, the judge can set a bond amount, dictate any terms of release, and appoint a lawyer for the defendant if he or she is deemed indigent. The court also will ask the defendant if they want to request a “preliminary hearing.”

A preliminary hearing must be requested by the defendant or his attorney within a certain number of days after an arrest, although the judge may allow a preliminary hearing at any time before indictment if she feels the circumstances call for such. At the preliminary hearing, the state must show probable cause to make the arrest, or issue the warrant. This is usually a low burden for the prosecutor to meet; however, if the judge finds that no probable cause existed to make the arrest, the case will be dismissed. The same case can, however, be presented to the Grand Jury later for potential re-prosecution. At this stage (although the defendant probably can’t tell the difference), he has not been formally charged. A defendant is formally charged when his case is presented and “true-billed” by the Grand Jury.

If the Prosecution chooses to proceed with the case, it is presented to the “Grand Jury” for “indictment.” The grand jury is composed of a group of citizens who have been selected from voter registration, driver’s license and tax lists. The grand jury considers evidence presented by the prosecutor and determines if there is sufficient evidence to formally charge the defendant and require them to respond to the charge. An indictment is not a finding of guilt. Generally, neither the accused nor their attorneys are present. Witnesses normally testify regarding the crime. After considering the evidence, if 12 or more of the 18 empanelled grand jury members vote to indict the defendant, the defendant must face further criminal proceedings. The return of an indictment is called a true bill. If 12 or more grand jury members do not find the evidence to be sufficient to indict, the grand jury enters a no bill and the charge is dismissed. 

If the Grand Jury returns a true bill and the defendant is indicted, the next steep is for him to be “arraigned.” The arraignment is required under law requiring the defendant to appear and receive formal notification of his charge. This also serves as an opportunity for the Judge to appoint lawyers to those defendants who qualify as indigent. Defendants at this point may continue plea negotiations with the prosecution, or preparation for trial, which is usually the final non-appeal step in the criminal process.

This column is intended for general information purposes only. It is not intended, nor should it be construed as personal legal advice. The answers to most legal problems rely on the specific facts of your situation; therefore, it is very important that you personally see a lawyer when these situations arise.