HOW A CRIMINAL
DEVERNA LAW HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND
Facing a criminal case can be a complicated and harrowing ordeal. DeVerna Law believes that by providing a better understanding of what lies ahead, a person can better prepare for the challenge. Below is some general information to help people understand how a criminal case works.
REMEMBER: The information below is general information meant for educational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any person who views it. If you need personalized legal assistance, always speak with a qualified attorney.
1. WHAT IS A CRIMINAL CASE?
A Criminal case arises when a person or organization is accussed of violating a Federal or State law. The person representing the State is known as a "Prosecutor" or an "Assitant District Attorney". The person being accussed of violating the law is known as the "Defendant".
2. WHAT ARE THE STEPS IN A CRIMINAL CASE?
Criminal Cases generally follow certain steps including arraignment, discovery, and trial. There is some variation depending on whether the case is a misdemeanor or a felony. A misdemeanor offense threatens, at its maximum, one year in jail, a felony offense threatens more than one year in jail.
3. WHEN DO I FIRST GET TO SEE A JUDGE?
When a Defendant is first arrested they are brought before a Judge and are formally told what they are being accused of by the State. Part of this procedure is when the Prosecutor provides a piece of paper to the Defendant and Court (known as a "Complaint"). The Complaint lists specific laws and "facts" which support the belief that the Defendant violated those laws.
4. WHEN DO I TELL THEM WHETHER I AM GUILTY OR NOT GUILTY?
The Defendant may plead guilty or not guilty to the charges at arraignment, or anytime thereafter. If the Defendant pleads guilty, the judge will decide on the punishment and the criminal case will be over. If the Defendant pleads not guilty the case will continue.
5. IF I PLEAD NOT GUILTY, CAN I GO HOME?
Depending on the type of case, the Defendant's criminal history, and the number of ties the Defendant has to the community, the Prosecutor may request that during the pendency of trial the Defendant be (1) remanded (kept in jail), (2) that bail be set, or (3) consent to the Defendant being released on his own recognizances. If the Judge decides to set bail, the Judge has some concern that the defendant will not return to Court. By posting bail, the Defendant in essence persuades the Court to release him from jail on the understanding that if he does not return to court, he will forfeit the money.
6. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER MY COURT DATE?
After his arraignment date, the case will be adjourned for a period of time. How long depends on the type of case and whether the defendant is going to be in jail during the intevening period. The number of adjournments and length between the adjournments is case specific. A criminal case can last for over a year. Failure to go to court on any days specified can result in a warrant being issued for the defendant's arrest.
During the adjournments, discovery will be provided, motions may be filed, hearings may be held, or the case may end in plea or dismissal.
7. HOW DO I KNOW THE EVIDENCE THEY HAVE AGAINST ME?
Discovery is the time when information has to be provided (generally) by the Prosecutor to the Defendant. This information includes statements of witnesses who will testify and law enforcement paperwork.
When and how the information is shared depends on the jurisdiction and the type of case. Discovery may continue up until the start of trial. A careful review of this information will help decide how to proceed on the case.
8. WHAT IF THE PROSECUTOR ISN'T PLAYING FAIR?
Sometimes the Prosecutor will not freely share everything in their case file. When that happens, defense counsel may submit papers asking the Court to instruct the Prosecutor to turn over what they have. The Prosecutor may comply (in whole or in part) or write a response motion. The Judge will look to the law and decide what should be turned over and when.
9. WHAT IF EVIDENCE WAS OBTAINED BY VIOLATING MY RIGHTS?
Before certain types of evidence may be introduced at Trial, a mini-trial (known as a "hearing") will be held to determine if the evidence the Prosecutor intends to introduce at trial was legally obtained. Hearings are conducted before a Judge and outside of the presense of a jury. If the Judge determines the evidence was illegally obtained, it cannot be introduced at trial (known as "suppression" or "suppressed").
For example, if at a hearing, the Police Officer testified that she approached the Defendant for no reason, searched him, and found a gun, and the Defendant later made a written confession, the Judge would likely rule that the evidence was illegally obtained. In this example, because the Defendant was stopped without cause, anything that resulted from the encounter, including the gun and the confession would be suppressed. This case would likely end in a dismissal because the Prosecutor would not be able to introduce the physical evidence (the gun and written confession).
Whether the Prosecutor will consent to holding hearings depends on the jurisdiction and type of case. If the Prosecutor will not consent, Defense Counsel may submit motion papers asking the Court to order the hearing(s). The Prosecutor may relent and consent to the hearings, or write a response motion stating why he believes the hearing is inappropriate. The Judge will look to the law and decide what hearings, if any, will be held.
10. WHEN IS MY GUILT ULTIMATELY DETERMINED?
At trial. A trial is the proceeding when the Prosecutor attempts to prove to a jury that the Defendant is guilty of a specific crime(s) beyond a reasonable doubt. In certain instances a judge (without a jury) can decide if a Defendant is guilty or not guilty in what is known as a "bench trial." A Trial generally follows certain steps including:
The Prosecutor's case
The Defendant's case (if it elects to put one on)
Instructing the Jury on the Law
11. HOW DO THEY PICK A JURY?
In a jury trial, both parties question potential jurors (known as "voire dire") to decide which of the potential jurors will be the actual jurors. Those chosen jurors will ultimately decide whether the Defendant is guilty or not guilty.
12. HOW DOES THE PROSECUTOR TRY AND PROVE ME GUILTY?
At the begining of the trial each side gives an opening statement previewing what they believe the evidence presented during the trial will show or not show. While the Prosecutor is required to give an opening statement, it is the Defendant's choice.
After opening statements, the Prosecutor then begins by presenting evidence of a crime and why the Defendant is the person who committed the crime. This is done through witness testimony, documents, and exhibits. After each of the witness testifies to what they claim happened, the Defense can then cross examine that witness. The Defense , if it chooses can put on a case of its own using the same procedure. If the Defense has presented its own case, then subject to the Court's discretion, the Prosecutor may be allowed to present additional evidence (known as "rebuttal evidence").
13. WHAT HAPPENS ONCE ALL THE EVIDENCE IS BEFORE THE JURY?
Once all the evidence has been presented, the Defendant and Proseuctor give their Summations (also known as "Closings" or "Closing Arguments"). During Summations each side argues what they believe the evidence that came out during trial showed or failed to show.
14. WHEN DOES THE JURY GET TO DECIDE?
After Summations, the court instructs the jury on the law and the jury applies the law to the evidence.
15. HOW DOES THE JURY DECIDE WHETHER I AM GUILTY OR NOT?
In our system a Defendant is presumed innocent. It is the Prosecutor's burden to prove the Defendant is guilty of committing the crime(s) charged. A Defendant does not have to prove he is not guilty. In fact, the Defendant does not have to prove anything. When the Judge instructs the jury on the law, he will remind the jury of that fact.
The Judge will also intrust the jury on the standard of proof our law requires to find a Defendant is guilty. That standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt". If the jury is not convinced the Prosecutor has proven the Defendant's guilt of each and every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury must find the Defendant not guilty. To help the Jury understand what a "beyond a reasonable doubt" means, the judge will tell them that reasonable doubt is an honest and actual doubt of the defendant's guilt. It is not sufficient for the jury to think that the Defendant is probably guilty. The proof of guilt must be stronger that that. Reasonable doubt is a doubt that a reasonable person would likely entertain of the defendant's guilt because of the evidence presented or because of the lack of convincing evidence presented.
16. WHEN DOES THE JURY SAY THEIR DECISION?
After all of the evidence is submitted to the jury (or the Judge at a bench trial), they have heard the arguments, and are instructed on the law, the jury deliberates on the evidence and is asked to reach a verdict. After their secret deliberations are finished, they announce their verdict in open court.
17. WHAT HAPPENS IF ONE SIDE IS NOT HAPPY WITH THE RESULT?
Following trial, the losing party may file papers with a higher court (known as an "Appeal") to review the proceedings at trial. The reviewing Court will then examine the court records, looking for legal errors made, if any. Generally, the appelate court will not review facts or override a jury's findings. If the appelate court finds a legal error was of enough significance, it can reverse the verdict or order a new trial.
18. DOES EVERY CASE GO TO TRIAL?
Not every case goes all the way to trial. Often, the Prosecutor and Defendant weigh the strength of their case and try to come up with a compromise that both sides can agree to.