A Step-By-Step Guide Through The Criminal Justice System
If you have been charged with a crime and have or will be appearing in court for your case, then this is a very general chronological outline of the criminal court process. Most people caught up in the criminal justice system prefer to be out-of-custody during the duration of their case. The only real difference in the outlined court process between in-custody and out of custody individuals is in the speed of the process. Generally, cases that involve individuals that are in-custody are handled much quicker in the courts than cases with individuals who are out of custody. The law requires this. Finally, most, if not all, court appearances mentioned in this outline require your personal appearance.
1. Cited to Court, Arrest and Release Agreement
Citation: In some criminal cases the police will give a citation (a ticket) to a person to appear in court. This will usually occur for certain low level criminal charges. It is important that you be aware of the court date and appear as listed on the citation.
Arrest: When arrested by the police for a criminal charge, you will be taken to the county jail in the county in which the alleged crime has taken place. At the jail, you may be given the opportunity to post bail and be released from custody. Most jails accept cash, check or credit cards. It may be possible to do a self bail but in some cases the jail may require that a third party post bail for your release.
Release Agreement: When released by the jail, the released person will likely be required to sign a release agreement. It is very important that you read the release agreement very carefully. Specific conditions for release will be listed in the release agreement, including your next court date. You must comply will all conditions of the release agreement. Violating any of the terms of the release agreement can result in immediate arrest. Your attorney, at a later date, can assist you in attempting to modify specific conditions of release. Typically, a court hearing will be needed for such a modification.
2. Arraignment, First Appearance
- This is the first court appearance in a criminal case. It is where you are advised of the charges the prosecutor has filed against you. You are not required to appear with an attorney, although it is highly recommended that you consult with attorney before your first court appearance. In this appearance you can request that the court appoint an attorney for you if you do not have the means to hire a private lawyer. It is imperative that you keep all the paperwork given to you at this hearing and bring it to your next meeting with your lawyer.
3. Release Hearing or Bail Reduction Hearing
- If a person is in custody because he or she cannot afford the bail amount, his or her attorney can request a release hearing or bail reduction hearing. Some courts address release issues at the first appearance. Other courts require a separate hearing on this issue. An experienced criminal defense attorney will know what to do to maximize the chance of his or her client's release from custody.
4. Early Court Resolution Programs
- Many courts have recently developed programs called "Early Court Resolutions Programs." This is a program designed to resolve cases early in the court process. It is very important that you not take any action without first consulting with an attorney. No matter how small the charge and potential conviction may be, it can have serious effects on your life, both short and long term.
5. Preliminary Hearings
- A preliminary hearing is a proceeding that involves a felony case. This is the time and place where the prosecutor must either have a grand jury indictment or have an actual preliminary hearing with witnesses. At a preliminary hearing a judge hears witness testimony and decides whether or not there is probable cause to continue in the court process with the charges. Actual preliminary hearings are rare. Most scheduled preliminary hearings turn out to be arraignments on an indictment.
6. Pre-Trial Conference, Status Conference or Case Manager Hearing
- This is the court appearance in which your attorney and the prosecutor are to report to the court if your case will be resolved through a plea bargain. Some courts allow the plea bargains to be accepted at this hearing. Other courts require that a separate hearing be set for accepting the plea bargain. In some cases the judge assigned to this hearing can assist with plea negotiation between the defense and prosecutor. If you do not accept a plea offer, a trial date may be set at this time.
7. Motions Hearing, Omnibus Hearing
- Some cases may require the filing of various pre-trial motions. A typical pre-trial motion may be a "Motion to Suppress Evidence". Some courts require that any pre-trial motions be litigated in a court hearing well before the scheduled trial date. Other courts prefer that they be litigated the day of trial.
8. Case Assignment or Call Appearances
- Most courts have a court appearance scheduled before your actual trial date. In this court appearance, the courts manage the trial docket for the next day or for the following week. The courts determine which cases get set out to trial and which cases get reset to another date. It is rare that a case gets out to trial on its first trial date. Individuals who are in custody usually get priority and their case will likely proceed to trial rather than be reset.
- A trial is a hearing where either a judge or jury decides the facts of the case and determines if the prosecutor's case is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. At trial, the prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction. The accused, through his defense attorney, may choose to present evidence helpful to the defense and the accused may choose to testify on his or her own behalf. Examples of evidence includes witnesses, photographs, physical evidence, and expert witnesses. The judge or jury must find the defendant not guilty if the charges are not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, some trials may last only a few hours and others may last several days, depending on the number of witnesses both sides present and the complexity of factual and legal disputes raised in the case.
- If a trial results in a finding of guilty, the trial judge can sentence the person immediately or postpone the sentencing decision for a later date. Sentencing can be a very complicated aspect of a case. Preparation for a sentencing hearing can be just as intense as trial preparation. Actual sentences imposed by a judge depend on a number of factors. An experienced criminal defense attorney will attempt to get his or her client a just, fair, and reasonable sentence by presenting all mitigating factors on his or her client's behalf.
- If the defense is not completely successful at trial, the accused has the option of appealing his or her case to courts overseeing the trial court. In state court it is the Oregon Court of Appeals and in federal court it is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Successful appeals may result in a reversal of a conviction, a new trial, and in some cases a lesser sentence or even complete dismissal of the original case.
12. Expungement, Reduction of Charges
- Oregon law allows for certain types of convictions to be expunged or erased from your record. In addition, certain types of charges can be reduced down to lesser charges. For example, certain felony charges may be reduced to a misdemeanor conviction. The most important thing to remember is that if you do have a conviction, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to determine if you are eligible for some type of relief from the conviction.