When you find yourself facing a criminal charge, you might wonder what’s in store as your case moves through the court. Any kind of contact with a criminal court is a harrowing experience. When you’re worried about your family, your career and your future, it helps to know what to expect in criminal court.
What’s criminal court?
The criminal court definition is a court that adjudicates crimes. In most cases, the court handles matters where there’s a possibility of jail time. The criminal court definition can include both misdemeanors and felonies. Some courts also handle non-criminal civil violations in smaller locations where there aren’t very many judges.
Your first formal court appearance is called your arraignment. This is where the judge formally tells you about the charges against you. You can also ask the state’s attorney to produce a copy of the complaint, so that you can read the charge against you in writing.
When your court date arrives, you usually check in with the criminal court clerk. It’s a good idea to ask if you need to let anyone know that you’ve arrived at the courthouse, so that they can call your case. If you skip the day you’re on the criminal court docket, the court can order a bench warrant for your arrest.
At your arraignment, the judge asks you if you want to plead guilty or not guilty. In most cases, it’s advantageous to plead not guilty. That leaves open the possibility of defending yourself against the charges or negotiating a plea agreement. Your arraignment is not the time to talk to the judge about the substance of the allegations against you. If you want to file a pretrial motion to ask the criminal court to throw out certain evidence, you need to file a formal motion and ask for the criminal court clerk to place the matter on the court docket for a hearing.
Complying with bond conditions
When you’re waiting for the criminal court process to unfold, the court usually places you on bond. This allows you to stay out of jail until your case resolves. Usually, being on bond means complying with a list of rules that the court gives you.
The criminal court might order you to refrain from using alcohol or drugs. They might tell you that you’re not allowed to have contact with one or more people while you’re waiting for future court dates. It’s important to make sure that you comply with your bond conditions, or you may find yourself back in jail before you even have a trial.
A court schedule is called a criminal court docket. That’s the list of all of the cases that the judge hears in a day. For things like arraignments, pretrials and court motions, the court might schedule many cases at the same time. They call the cases in any order. Your case might be the first one that they call, and it might be the last one that they call. It’s important to be prepared to have to wait even an hour or more for the court to call your case.
When the court schedules future dates in your case, it’s called putting your case on the docket. The court can’t hear your case if it’s not on the docket, because the court has to give both sides notice of the proceedings. It’s important to pay attention to any hearing notices that you receive, because if you miss a hearing, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest.
After your arraignment, you may decide to try and plea bargain with the state’s attorney. A plea bargain occurs when you plead guilty in exchange for a reduction in the charges against you or in exchange for some other type of leniency. The state’s attorney doesn’t have to offer a plea bargain. However, the state charges more cases than they could ever take to trial. They often use plea bargains in order to control their case load.
If you’d like to plea bargain in your criminal court case, it’s up to you to convince the state attorney that they should offer you a plea. You can do this by showing them where their case is weak. This might mean presenting evidence or pointing out legal problems with the state’s case.
You can also make your case for a favorable plea bargain by showing the state’s attorney that you’re a good choice for leniency. You might begin rehabilitative programs such as substance abuse counseling or anger management. You might show the state’s attorney that you’re a gainfully employed member of the community or that you attend school full time. If you don’t have any prior convictions, that can also work in your favor when it comes to getting a favorable plea bargain in criminal court.
A plea bargain can reduce the charges, reduce the possible penalties that you receive at sentencing or do both. For example, a plea bargain can reduce a felony to charge to a misdemeanor charge, or it might reduce a one-year misdemeanor to a 90-day misdemeanor. A plea bargain can also include a recommendation that you don’t serve time in jail. There are a lot of different ways that you might be able to reach a resolution without a trial, and you can get creative as you negotiate with the state’s attorney. The state’s attorney might even decide to dismiss your case before it goes to trial.
Going to trial
If you don’t reach a resolution, the next step in the criminal court process is to take your case to trial. This is where you tell the judge or the jury your story and ask them to find you not guilty of the charges. In most cases, you have a right to a trial by jury in criminal court.
A jury trial begins with choosing jurors. You have a chance to question potential jurors to make sure that they can be fair in your case. Once you’ve chosen the jurors, both sides have a chance to make an opening statement to the jury. This is your chance to tell the jurors what evidence they’ll hear during the trial and tell them that there won’t be enough evidence to convict you of the charges.
The criminal court process allows you to question the state’s witnesses. You can also call witnesses of your own. You can present other evidence such as documents, photographs and other records. After each side presents their case, you have a chance to make a closing statement to the jury. In your closing statement, you tell the jury how the evidence fails to show that you’re guilty of the offense. After that, the jury deliberates. If they convict you, your case proceeds to sentencing.
How to build your case
Taking your case to trial requires a lot of leg work before your day in criminal court arrives. You can file what’s called discovery. That requires the state to produce the evidence against you and any evidence they have that works to your favor. To build your case, you can contact witnesses and examine the state’s evidence. In some cases, you may want to work with an expert in order to explain technical or scientific information.
You can also build your case by filing court motions. These motions ask the court to throw out the state’s evidence for legal reasons. Even the instructions that the judge gives the jury about how to decide your case might be a place where you can file a motion to ask the court to do something that works in your favor. All of these steps are very important to prepare your case before trial even begins.
If you’re found not guilty, the case ends, and you have no punishment. If you’re convicted, your case proceeds to sentencing. This is where the court imposes penalties for your conviction.
In some cases, the court might have mandatory sentencing requirements. They might have to put you in jail or prison for a minimum period of time. A conviction for some criminal court cases might require the judge to revoke your driver’s license. There might be minimum fines or court costs that you need to pay.
Despite mandatory penalties in some cases, judges typically have wide discretion when it comes to fashioning a sentence in your criminal court case. That makes it important to take the time to prepare for your sentencing hearing. Although a conviction might be discouraging in your case, the work doesn’t end after your trial. Taking the time to prepare for your sentence can mean the difference between penalties that are light and penalties that are severe.
Being on probation
One of the options that the court has for a penalty is to place you on probation. The courts generally look at probation as an alternative to jail. As long as you comply with the terms of your probation, you stay out of jail.
Conditions of probation are often similar to terms of bond. You may have to report to the criminal court clerk if you change your address. The court might order you not to break any laws. You might have conditions not to possess or consume alcohol or drugs. You may need to attend counseling, maintain employment and complete community service.
The court can fashion a unique sentence in every criminal court case. This makes it important to prepare for sentencing. A polite, contrite statement to the court that outlines a sentence that you feel is appropriate can go a long ways to helping you achieve a good result.
Civil vs. criminal court
There are some key differences in civil v criminal court. A criminal court decides only whether a person has broken a law. A civil court can decide a wide range of legal issues. Civil courts decide wrongs between one person and another. They also do things like decide family court issues, wills or guardianship requests and requests for orders that require people to do specific actions.
A criminal court can only decide whether a person is guilty of committing a certain crime. The court has a lot of power to put a convicted person in jail or otherwise penalize them. An important difference in civil v criminal court is that a criminal court’s powers are limited to deciding only crimes, while civil courts have jurisdiction over a wide range of disputes and questions.
Each civil court usually has jurisdiction over a certain type of civil matters. That is, a civil court might hear wills and other probate matters, small claims disputes, civil disputes involving larger amounts of money or family court issues. Usually, laws and court rules give a court their authority over a specific type of law.
Putting your best foot forward
Criminal court cases are serious matters. It’s important to try to put your best foot forward any time you have an encounter with a criminal court. There are a lot of things that you can do in order to make the process as smooth as possible.
Each time you go to court, dress appropriately. Make sure you check the court website for things that you can’t bring into the courthouse. It’s important to arrive early. Leave extra time for unexpected things that might happen on the day you have court.
Although you may need to ask the judge for certain things, never get in an argument with a judge. The judge that hears your case on any given day might end up being the judge that gives you a sentence or makes a decision about evidence that can work in your favor. That makes it important to appear professional every chance you get.
Reaching the best outcome in criminal court means taking the time to study your case. Evaluating your case for all possible defenses under the law can help you pursue the best possible outcome in your case. This can make navigating the courts more manageable as you work to defend yourself and put the ordeal behind you.