Steps of a Felony Case
Whether it's your first time being charged with a crime or you're just curious as to how the process works, this guide will take you through the steps of how a felony criminal prosecution in Monroe County begins and the stages that follow.
- Crime/Investigation - Before there can be any arrests or prosecutions, a crime must occur. The police are called to investigate and based upon their findings, they will decide if a crime has occurred. Sometimes the police have enough information to make an arrest at the scene and other times they do not. When the police believe that they have enough evidence, they will ask the prosecutor's office to authorize a complaint.
- Arrest - The suspect is arrested and becomes a criminal defendant once charges are formally filed by the prosecutor's office. The suspect is arrested at the scene or when the police have obtained an arrest warrant based on probable cause following an investigation.
- Arraignment - This occurs at the District Court and is the first time you will see either a judge or magistrate. You will be informed of the charges against you. If it is a felony charge, the judge will inform you that you have the right to an attorney at public expense or reduced cost if you cannot afford one. If you request a court-appointed attorney, you will need to complete some paperwork regarding your finances to determine if you are eligible.
- Probable Cause Conference - Within 7 to 14 days of your first arraignment, you will be scheduled to appear for a Probable Cause Conference. That is a meeting between your attorney (if you have one) and the prosecutor assigned to your case. Plea offers and negotiations will take place to see if the case can be resolved without going to trial and decide if there will be a Preliminary Exam. Other issues may be discussed such as evidentiary issues, problems with discovery (police reports, evidence), or modifying the bond amount or conditions.
- Preliminary Exam - For felony cases, you are entitled to a Preliminary Exam within 5 to 7 days after the Probable Cause Conference and no later than 21 days after your arraignment. Also known as a Probable Cause Hearing, the prosecution has the burden of proving at the Exam that a felony has been committed and that you are the one that committed it. The Preliminary Exam is like a mini version of a trial. The prosecution will call witnesses and present evidence and will ask the judge to bind the case over to the Circuit Court for trial. If the prosecution meets their burden of proof, the case gets bound over (or continues on) at the Circuit Court. However, the testimony can also result in a dismissal, reduction in charges, or additional charges. Many times the defendant waives their right to a Preliminary Exam and the case automatically goes to the Circuit Court. Deciding whether or not to waive the Preliminary Exam should be thoroughly discussed with a lawyer before making the decision.
- Arraignment - Once your case is bound over to Circuit Court, you will be arraigned again in front of the Circuit Court judge.
- Pretrial Hearing - Once the case is bound over to the Circuit Court, a new prosecutor and a new judge will be assigned to your case. Much like the Probable Cause Conference at the District Court, the Pretrial Hearing is a meeting between your lawyer and the prosecutor to discuss your case and possible resolutions without going to trial. If not, trial will be set. If the case is resolved with a plea, then you bypass the trial stage and proceed to sentencing.
- Final Pretrial Hearing- The final Pretrial allows an opportunity for the defendant to accept a plea agreement. The Judge will explain the charge or charges you are pleading to and the maximum possible penalty for the charge. The judge will then explain your rights if you take your case to trial and ask if you understand that you give up those rights by pleading guilty. The details of the offer in your case will then be placed on the record. Next, the Judge will confirm that you are pleading guilty of your own choice, and that no additional offers were made. Finally, the defendant will tell the court what occurred that makes them guilty. In the case of a No Contest plea, the Judge will review documents to determine what occurred. You will then proceed to the sentencing phase. If you do not to agree to a plea, a trial will be scheduled.
- Trial - You will have the choice of either having a trial by jury or a trial by judge. Ask your lawyer for advice on which one you should choose. You always have a right to a jury trial. If you want to waive your right to a jury, the prosecutor must agree.
- Jury Selection - The process begins with jury selection where both the prosecution and defense ask questions of potential jurors to determine their suitability for the jury. Once a full jury has been placed, the trial will begin. Potential Jurors are residents of Monroe County.
- Opening Statements - The prosecution begins their case with their opening statement. The defense has the option of presenting an opening statement after the prosecution or they can wait until their case begins. Opening statements are a preview of the case. The lawyers tell the jury what evidence they believe will be presented at trial and what the evidence will show.
- Prosecution's Case - The prosecution will then begin their case by calling witnesses and presenting evidence against the defendant. The defense will have an opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses and make challenges to the evidence. After the prosecution is done presenting evidence and calling witnesses, the defense has an opportunity to present their case if they choose to.
- Defense Case - The defense will usually start by making a motion for "directed verdict," which means that the prosecution has not met their burden of proof and the case is so lopsided in favor of the defendant, the judge should automatically enter a verdict in favor of the defendant without the case preceding any farther. Usually the motion is denied. The defense will then present their case where they call witnesses and present evidence and the prosecution has the chance to cross-examine those witnesses and challenge the evidence, just as the defense did against the prosecution. In some cases, the defense will not call any witnesses. When the defense rests their case, the prosecutor can then call "rebuttal witnesses" to refute or contradict what the defense witnesses said.
- Closing Arguments - Once the defense is finished presenting their case, and/or the prosecution has presented their rebuttal witnesses, the trial concludes with closing arguments. This is where the lawyers argue to the jury what they believe the evidence presented at trial proved. Again, the prosecution has the chance to rebut the defense's argument because they have the burden of proof. Once arguments are done, the case is submitted to the jury and deliberations begin.
- Sentencing - If you are found not guilty or if the jury cannot agree on a verdict, then the case has concluded and you are free to go. If not and the jury finds you guilty, or you have agreed to a plea, the next phase will be sentencing. The probation department will arrange a meeting with you and ask you a series of questions about your background, life, and previous criminal history if any. In their report they will make a recommendation as to what sentence you should receive. The current crime you are convicted of is scored for points based on the severity of the crime as well as any past crimes you have been convicted of. These factor into sentencing guidelines which present a range as to how much time you should spend in prison, if any. The judge will use this information to determine your sentence.
- Appeals - After your guilty plea or conviction, you can appeal the decision if you believe you were treated unfairly or improperly. Most of the time, the appeals court has discretion whether or not to accept your appeal. If you are convicted at trial, you have an automatic right to appeal. If you are convicted with a plea, you give up an automatic right to an appeal and the Court of Appeals has the option of granting or declining your appeal.