Anatomy of a Criminal Law Case

You have been charged with a crime.  For most people this comes as unexpected even if it could have been foreseen.  Suddenly, you have to deal with something foreign, something that may effect your life forever.  Many questions come to mind with too few answers. Why would you have an answer or answers?  You wouldn’t; that’s why you need a lawyer to navigate the “system.”

This blog will describe the basic criminal law case from start to finish so those unfamiliar with the criminal law process will have a better idea of the road ahead.

A charging document charges the defendant with a crime and states the crime or crimes the defendant is charged with and when (the crime was committed OR when the charging document was issued?) and to some degree how the crime was committed.

Every case begins with either an issuance of a citation (usually involving lesser crimes or misdemeanors) or a charging document issued by the prosecuting attorney (the State) which is known as either a “complaint” or an “information.”  Additionally, an indictment can be issued by a grand jury, depending on the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed. An indictment is another form of a charging document.

A person is either arrested on the charge and brought before a judge or “summoned” by mail into court to be brought in front of a judge.  This court appearance is typically called an “arraignment.”

At the arraignment, with a few exceptions, a plea of not guilty is entered.  If you don’t have an attorney one will appear for you and if you cannot afford an attorney, an attorney will be appointed for you at no expense.  Moreover, the question of whether you should have to post bail is addressed.  The judge determines if you should be released with a promise to appear or whether the judge should require you to post money or a bail bond (essentially a promise of an amount of money or property) which is forfeited if you fail to appear for the next court date.  You obtain a bail bond from a business known as a bail bond company. They, for a fee, post a bond for you. Usually it costs around 10% of the bond amount.

The judge’s decision to set a bail amount is based on whether you are likely to appear at the next court date and/or whether you are likely to commit a serious crime or interfere with the administration of justice once you are released. After the arraignment you are either released or you are taken into custody (if you were not arrested) until you post bond.

Once your case has started, your attorney will appear on the case by filing what is called a Notice of Appearance and Request for Discovery.  This tells the prosecuting attorney and the court that you now officially have an attorney and that he or she wants, for a start, all the police reports and access and notice of all the evidence for the State’s case.

After the start of the case you will, hopefully, be advised more formally on the details of your case.  Your attorney’s job is to assess your case by reviewing the discovery, and to investigate any further matters pertaining to the case.  Essentially the attorney’s job is to, through the lens of experience and legal training, determine the hand you have been dealt.  Your attorney will apprise you of the merits of your case and as the case progresses keep you abreast of the game plan for your defense, which may change over time as more is revealed.  This is a simplification of the process, but your attorney is trying to do two things: negotiate and present your best side to the State toward the goal of reaching an acceptable resolution while at the same time assessing the merits of your case as if it were to proceed to a jury trial.  A good attorney assesses everything toward these two goals.  The cards you were dealt are not static. A great attorney can turn a bad hand into a winning hand at trial.  This concept cannot be described, but can only be appreciated by attorneys who do this for a living or those who are well read on the subject.  Think back to the O.J. Simpson trial and the cards he was dealt and how they were played and you can appreciate what I am saying.  Whatever your opinion on that case is, you have to be amazed by the “lawyering” of O.J.’s attorneys.

The process of your criminal case can be over soon or last a long time as the goals of mitigation (settling) and litigation (trial) are explored.  Keep informed by your attorney.  Let your attorney know the things that are most important to you in terms of an outcome.  The more you communicate the better.  Your attorney’s job is to represent and advocate for you.  Trust your attorney to do his or her job and protect your interests.

Ultimately, your choice as the client will determine whether to settle the case or go to trial.  This decision may be easy or not but a good attorney will insure it is an informed decision.  There are risks associated with going to trial and the reward of winning may not outweigh the risk of losing.

Stay focused during the process.  Ask the questions that come to mind and remember: things generally are not as bad as they seem and there is nearly always light at the end of the tunnel, our justice system is not perfect, but it is much better than most. Thomas Jefferson once said our jury system is “The best of all possible safeguards for the protection of the person, property and reputation of every citizen.”  I have tried over 200 felony cases before a jury and believe without a doubt the Mr. Jefferson was right!