A criminal case begins when the crime is reported.
Police investigate the crime, which may include speaking with the victims, witnesses and suspects; and collecting evidence.
Police Make an On-Scene Arrest or Request a Summons/Warrant
Depending on the crime committed, the police may make an on-scene arrest of the suspect. In some situations, the officer may apply for charges through the District Court Commissioner who will authorize an arrest warrant or summons.
If there is probable cause that a crime was committed by the suspect a warrant or summons is issued and served on the suspect.
Delay of Arrest
If a suspect is not arrested and charged on the scene there is a delay from the date of the crime and date of the arrest. There are numerous reasons for this delay. For example, additional investigation is being conducted by the charging agency and/or the agency may not be able to locate the suspect.
Initial Appearance/Preliminary Inquiry
This is the first court appearance. Once a suspect is charged with a criminal offense they must appear in court. At this appearance the defendant is notified of the charges and potential penalties, advised of his/her right to a trial by jury, notified of his/her right to counsel, and provided subsequent court dates. The defendant’s terms of pretrial release or bail may also be addressed at this hearing. The court may set a monetary amount of bail and impose conditions, such as stay away from the location of the crime, no contact with the victim, etc.
Subsequent Court Dates
At a preliminary inquiry in District Court the only subsequent court date is the defendant’s trial date. At the initial appearance in Circuit Court, the defendant is given a pretrial date, plea date and trial date. There may also subsequently be a date provided to litigate motions. At motions, a judge determines whether evidence will be admitted at the trial.
A preliminary hearing, sometimes referred to as a “probable cause hearing” is heard by a District Court judge in some felony cases. The prosecutor presents a witness or witnesses to testify. The defense is then given the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. Upon completion of the testimony, the judge determines if there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. If probable cause is found the prosecutor has 30 days to present the case to the Grand Jury or file a criminal information in Circuit Court. If probable cause is not found the felony charges are dismissed and the remaining charges, if any, are set for trial in the District Court.
Pretrial and Plea dates
At the pretrial, the prosecutor and defense further discuss the case and may even meet with the judge. The plea offer is often stated on the record in open court. At the plea hearing, the defendant may accept or reject the plea. If the defendant rejects the plea, the trial date is confirmed and a date to litigate motions may be set. If the defendant accepts the plea, he/she may proceed to sentencing on that date or sentencing may be set on a subsequent date for a Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI) to be conducted. A PSI is conducted by Parole and Probation and obtains information regarding the defendant’s familial upbringing, educational history, criminal history, and financial history. The PSI will also include a victim impact statement if the victim choses. At the conclusion of the PSI, a sentence recommendation is made.
If a defendant elects a trial in District Court a judge is the trier of fact and determines guilt or innocence. A defendant in District Court who is charged with a crime that carries a maximum penalty of more than 90 days in jail has the constitutional right to request a trial by jury. If a defendant demands a jury trial the case is forwarded to Circuit Court for trial.
In Circuit Court the defendant has the complete discretion on whether to have his case heard by a judge or a jury of 12 people. When deciding guilt or innocence the jury’s decision must be unanimous. The prosecutor has the burden to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not required to prove his/her innocence. If the defendant is found guilty a sentencing date is set. If the defendant is found not guilty, the case is over.
If the case concluded in a plea then that plea must be agreed upon by the prosecutor, the defendant and the judge. Sentencing after a trial is ultimately up the judge. The judge will listen to the victim or victim’s representative, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the defendant and his/her supporters. The judge will also review the sentencing guidelines. Sentencing guidelines consider the crime, injuries to the victim, whether a weapon was used, special victim vulnerability, and the defendant’s criminal history in order to determine a sentencing range. The judge may go above or below this range but must provide a reason for departing from the guidelines.