Being charged with a crime can be an intimidating thing for many people. Courthouses are large and busy places and it is easy to get lost in what is happening in your case. To clear up some of that confusion, here is a very basic outline of the various court hearings in different kinds of criminal cases. There may be additional hearings in your particular case, depending upon what you have been charged with and the circumstances of your case.
There are three types of matters that are dealt with in the criminal courts: civil infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies.
A civil infraction is generally a minor traffic-related offense such as speeding. These matters have no chance of sending a defendant to jail. Usually, the primary issues in these matters are the amount of fines and costs and the license consequences imposed by the Secretary of State. Because of the low severity of these matters, they involve the least number of hearings. If you are charged with a civil infraction you can expect the following court hearings:
- Arraignment: At this hearing you (and your attorney if you have retained one) appear before a magistrate or judge and enter a plea (generally not guilty) to the offense charged. The hearing usually happens within 14 days of the charges being issued (generally when you get the ticket). The magistrate or judge will impose a bond if you have not already done so at the jail. If you are unable to post the bond at the time of arraignment you will be taken to the jail until you can produce the required funds. For this reason, it is always a good idea to bring a fair amount of cash with you to the arraignment. Bonds for civil infractions generally range from $100 to $500.
- Pretrial: This hearing is the first opportunity for you or your attorney to meet with the prosecutor to determine if some kind of plea agreement can be reached. In a plea agreement, the defendant agrees to plead responsible to some charge, usually lower than the one initially authorized, in exchange for certain concessions on the part of the prosecutor. In a civil infraction, this could mean that you receive fewer points on your license, or that the fines and costs will be capped, or you may be given more time to pay. If you reach a plea agreement at the time of the Pretrial conference, you will go before the magistrate or judge who will ask you questions about what happened on the date in question, and about whether you understand what is happening and the potential consequences. Be respectful when speaking to the judge or magistrate. This is the person who has the final say on many of the consequences of your charge, so now is not the time to express you distrust of the court system, or your displeasure over appearing before him or her.
- Formal Hearing: This is the big day. If you and your attorney have not been able to come to a plea agreement with the prosecutor before this hearing, then this is your opportunity to present evidence to the judge about why you are not responsible for the charges. The prosecutor will put on evidence, most likely including the testimony of the officer who issued the civil infraction ticket, to show that you are responsible for violating a provision of the motor vehicle code. Your attorney will have an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses put on by the prosecution and to examine all the evidence. Then your attorney will put on any evidence that you have provided to show why you are not responsible. This could include having you testify in court. After all the testimony has been heard and evidence received, the judge will determine whether or not you are responsible and will impose a sentence (penalty) if you are in fact responsible. The judge has the final say, though there may be an opportunity to appeal
A misdemeanor is a crime that is generally punishable by a maximum sentence of one year or less, but certain “high court misdemeanors” include two-year maximum sentences. They are resolved solely within the District Court. (Berrien County has a unified Trial Court, which includes both District and Circuit Courts.) These crimes include higher-severity traffic offenses (such as operating while intoxicated), most theft offenses, some low-severity assaultive crimes, and various other low-severity crimes. Because these matters involve a chance that the defendant will go to jail, there are constitutional provisions and court rules that guarantee defendants a “speedy trial.” This means that the defendant will not be held in jail for more than 28 days before the trial is completed, unless that delay is caused by the defendant or his or her attorney. (Other, far less frequent delays are also excluded from the 28 day limitation) If you are charged with a misdemeanor you can expect the following court hearings:
- Arraignment: This hearing is just as it is described above, except that it will be held before a District Court Judge, rather than a magistrate. Bonds for misdemeanors generally range up to $5,000 but usually only require the defendant to pay 10% (or $500).
- Pretrial: This hearing is just as it is described above. In a misdemeanor, a plea agreement could mean that you may not have to go to jail, may only be required to serve probation, or may even be able to only pay fines and costs. If there is alcohol, controlled substances, or a victim involved in the charges, the judge will set the matter for sentencing at a later date. If not, then he or she will likely sentence you at the same time as the plea.
- Final Pretrial or Status Conference: This hearing is usually scheduled a day or two prior to the jury trial (see below). It is your last chance to make a deal with the prosecutor before going through the jury trial process.
- Jury or Non-Jury Trial: This is the equivalent of the Formal Hearing in a civil infraction. In a misdemeanor case, you can demand to have a jury of six people from your community (your peers) hear your case rather than just the judge. After all the testimony has been heard and evidence received, the jury (or judge in a non-jury trial) will determine whether or not you are guilty.
- Sentencing: At this final hearing, the judge will impose a sentence (penalty) if you are in fact found guilty. The judge has the final say, though there may be an opportunity to appeal.
A felony is a high-severity crime, usually defined as a crime that has a possible penalty of more than one year in a state prison. They are initially addressed by the District Court, but a final determination will be made by the Circuit Court. These crimes include most drug crimes, most serious assault crimes, weapon charges, and other high crimes. These are the most serious criminal charges. Because these matters involve a chance that the defendant will go to jail, there are constitutional provisions and court rules that guarantee defendants a “speedy trial.” This means that the defendant will not be held in jail for more than 180 days before the trial is completed, unless that delay is caused by the defendant or his or her attorney. (Other, far less frequent delays are also excluded from the 180 day limitation) If you are charged with a felony you can expect the following court hearings:
- Arraignment: This hearing is just as described in the civil infraction section except that it occurs before a District Court Judge. Bonds for felonies can range into the tens and even hundreds of thousands. Often the defendant is only required to pay 10% of the amount ordered. Other times, a bail bondsman can be hired to post the bond for a payment of 10% of the total bond issued.
- Pre-Exam Conference: This hearing in the District Court is the first opportunity for you or your attorney to meet with the prosecutor to determine if some kind of plea agreement can be reached. However, often you will have to wait until after the Preliminary Examination to enter the plea, because it must be entered in Circuit Court. This hearing also provides an opportunity for your attorney to request disclosure of important evidence in your case and find out the factual basis behind the charges.
- Preliminary Examination: This hearing in the District Court requires the prosecutor to put forward enough evidence to show that there is “probable cause” to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant is the one who committed it. Probable cause is a very low standard to meet, so very few cases are dismissed at the Preliminary Examination stage. Basically, this hearing is a check to make sure there is enough evidence to move forward. In a practical sense, the primary purpose of a Preliminary Examination is to give your attorney a first look at the evidence against you. If the District Court judge determines that there is probable cause in your case, it will be “bound over” to Circuit Court. Your District Court bond may be continued or you may be arraigned again in Circuit Court.
- Case Conference: This hearing in the Circuit Court gives you and your attorney a chance to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor. In a felony matter, this could mean that you may be sentenced to time in a local jail instead of a state prison, may only be required to serve probation, or, in rare cases, may even be able to only pay fines and costs. Following the entry of a plea the Circuit Court Judge will set a date for sentencing and a Presentence Investigation Report will be prepared by the Felony Probation Department with respect to you case.
- Status Conference: This hearing is usually scheduled a day or two prior to the jury trial. It is your last chance to make a deal with the prosecutor before going through the jury trial process. It is also an opportunity for your attorney and the prosecutor to make certain that everything is in place for the trial, and for the Circuit Court Judge to make rulings on any pre-trial motions filed by either attorney.
- Jury or Non-Jury Trial: This hearing is just as described in the misdemeanor section, except that the jury may have up to twelve members. If the jury finds that you are guilty of the charges against you, the Circuit Court Judge will set a date for sentencing and a Presentence Investigation Report will be prepared by the Felony Probation Department with respect to you case.
- Sentencing: At this final hearing, the Circuit Court Judge will impose a sentence (penalty) if you are in fact found guilty. The judge has the final say, though there may be an opportunity to appeal.
In any of the above matters, your attorney may schedule additional hearings to try to modify the terms of your bond, limit the evidence that can be used at trial, and assert certain defenses. These hearings will generally be heard before the Final Pretrial or Status Conference.
Criminal court procedure can be confusing and is often raced through by prosecutors and judges who have heavy caseloads and busy schedules. A good defense attorney is essential to make sure that your rights and interests are fully represented and that you do not get lost in the shuffle.
* Please note: Every case is different, and there may be some aspect of your particular case which may result in an outcome other than is described above. This post is not intended as legal advice and may not apply to your particular case. It is always best to contact our office for a consultation if you have been or believe you may be charged with a crime.