If you’ve been arrested for a crime for the first time, you probably are wondering what is going to happen next. The criminal justice system can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you’ve never even been in court before. When my clients come to me after getting arrested, I explain to them exactly what to expect and stick by their sides through every stage of the proceedings. To help you out, I have written this brief and general guide about the stages your criminal case will go through. To learn more detailed information about how your specific case will go, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney.
Stages of your Criminal Case
There are 5 basic stages of a criminal case as it makes its way through the court system. The actual court procedures may be different in your case because no two judges are alike, and no two prosecutors are the same either. However, this a basic outline of the process your criminal case will follow.
Stage 1 — Investigation, Arrest, and Booking
Before you can be arrested and charged with a crime, the police must have found enough evidence to have probable cause to believe that you are guilty of a crime. If you know you are being investigated for a crime but have not been arrested, you do not have to wait until you are arrested to get help. A criminal defense attorney can advise you on how to deal with the police during the investigation and what your rights are during this stage.
Once the police have enough evidence, you will be arrested and taken to a local police station or jail for booking. Booking is the process of recording information about you in the police database, fingerprinting, taking a mugshot, searching you for contraband, checking your arrest record, and other administrative items. Once you are booked, you will likely be held at the jail until either you make bail or you are taken to court.
Stage 2 — Arraignment
Arraignment is when the prosecutor files formal charges against you. If you have been released on bail, you will receive notice of your hearing date by mail. At the arraignment, a judge will read the charges against you and ask if you understand them. You will also plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest to the criminal charge.
During the arraignment, the judge may also set rules you will have to follow if you want to stay out of jail while your case is pending. For example, if you are charged with DWI, the judge could order that you agree to random drug and alcohol testing or install an Ignition Interlock Device in your car.
Stage 3 — Pretrial Proceedings
Many criminal cases are resolved before they ever get to trial through a plea bargain. A plea bargain is when your attorney and the prosecutor “make a deal”, and you agree to plead guilty to a lesser offense in exchange for not taking your case to trial. Plea bargaining makes developments during the pretrial phase exceptionally important, as they can impact the deal a prosecutor is willing to give you.
The primary components of the pretrial stage of your case are discovery and motion hearings. Discovery is the process that your attorney will use to learn about the evidence the prosecution has that you committed the crime. Your attorney will file a request for discovery with the court, and the prosecutors will have to turn over their evidence against you for you and your attorney to review.
Motion hearings are held when either your attorney or the prosecutor asks the judge to take a certain action. For example, your defense attorney may file a motion to suppress, in which your attorney will ask the judge to restrict the prosecutor from using evidence that was obtained through a violation of your constitutional rights.
Stage 4 — Trial
If your attorney and the prosecution do not agree to a plea bargain during pretrial, your case will go to trial. During the trial stage, the prosecution will present its evidence that you are guilty to a jury, and then your criminal defense attorney will be able to present evidence that supports your innocence.
You can also waive your right to a jury trial and have a judge decide your case. This is a strategic decision that your attorney will help you make based on the particular facts of your case. Whoever is deciding whether you are guilty or not guilty is called the “finder of fact”.
The prosecution has what is called the “burden of proof”, which means that it must prove to the finder of fact that you are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” As a criminal defendant, you are innocent until proven guilty, so you are not required to prove anything. However, you are permitted to have your attorney present evidence that weakens the case the prosecutor has against you.
Once the trial proceedings have concluded, the finder of fact must decide if you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the finder of fact concludes that there is reasonable doubt, you will be found not guilty.
Stage 5 — Sentencing
If you pleaded guilty during an earlier stage of your case, or if you were found guilty during your trial, then you will receive a punishment called a sentence for your crime. Based on the facts and circumstances of your case, and possibly your criminal record as well, the judge will decide a fitting punishment for your offense.
If you have been arrested for a crime in Texas, don’t lose hope. If you have a qualified defense attorney by your side, you can navigate each stage of your case with the guidance of an experienced professional and obtain the best result possible.