How Criminal Court Works: 10 Things You Need to Know

Over the past 10 years, the amount of criminal court caseloads has decreased by 2%. In 2016, a reported 17.8 million cases went to criminal court at the state level.

The National Center for State Courts has collected data on court statistics. Its research shows that Texas accounted for over 2 million of the incoming criminal court cases.

If you live in Austin, Texas and have found yourself with a DWI, you’ll need to know how the criminal court system functions before your appearance.

How Criminal Court Works 10 Things You Need to Know10 Must-Know Facts About Criminal Court

Each state has its own set of rules for criminal cases in the court system. For example, one state might exact a harsher punishment for a specific crime than another state would.

Despite this, there are several steps to a criminal court case that remain more often than not common procedure. They are:

1. Arraignment

The arraignment is the first time you appear in court.

This is when a judge will tell you what your charges are, what your constitutional rights are, and that if you don’t have the funds to hire a lawyer then the court will appoint you a public defender.

The judge will then give you a chance to respond to the charges with a plea. There are three common pleas: guilty, not guilty, or no contest.

  • Not Guilty: This plea is given when you’re fighting the charges because you didn’t commit the crime you’re accused of. This can also be a strategic decision. By entering a not guilty plea, you force the case to go to trial and the prosecution then must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Guilty: This plea is given when you’re admitting you committed the crime. Sometimes by entering a guilty plea, you can also reduce the harshness of your sentencing.
  • No Contest: This means you don’t disagree with the charge. It’s similar to a guilty plea, but the conviction can’t be used against you in a civil lawsuit.

2. Bail or Detention

If you’re in custody when the arraignment occurs, there are three different outcomes.

The first is that the judge will agree to release you under the assumption you’ll return to court on the specified date.

The second possible outcome is that the judge will set bail. You will go back to jail until the total of the bail is paid.

The final possibility is that the judge will not set bail and will send you back to jail. You won’t be allowed out of jail except to attend the trial. This third outcome happens when the judge decides you pose a flight risk or your crime was especially severe.

3. Discovery

After the arraignment comes discovery.

Your lawyer and the prosecution will exchange information. This step is called “discovery”.

Discovery allows both sides to know what evidence may be presented before the trial occurs. It’s meant to prevent what’s called a “trial by ambush”.

The prosecutor will study evidence related to the crime, talk to witnesses, and think up problems that might arise during the trial. This all leads to the prosecutor developing a trial strategy.

Your defense attorney will follow a similar routine. They will talk to witnesses, study your case, and develop their own criminal defense strategy to help assure you win.

4. Plea Bargaining

A plea bargain is when the criminal case is resolved outside of court. This happens often because of several reasons:

  • You avoid the expenses of going to trial, the possibility of harsher punishment, and also the publicity that a trial begins.
  • The prosecution avoids the time and expense required for a trial.
  • Both you and the prosecution avoid the uncertain outcome of a trial.

5. Preliminary Hearing

If you entered a not guilty plea at your arraignment, a preliminary hearing may be your next court appearance.

Think of the preliminary hearing as a type of mini-trial. If you’re being held in jail, the preliminary hearing must be within 14 days of your arraignment appearance. If you’re out on bail, then that increases to 21 days.

6. Pre-Trial Motions

This is the final step before the official trial.

The prosecutor will respond to or file motions. A motion is an application requesting the judge to make a decision on a specific issue before the trial.

It’s worth noting that a motion can have a profound impact on a trial. It can affect things like evidence and testimony.

7. Trial and Plea

The trial is the “big day” at court.

At the trial, both your defense attorney and the prosecutor will lay out the details of the case to the jury, call witnesses, and present evidence.

During the trial, objections might occur in relation to a question or piece of evidence.

Upon considering an objection, the judge will make their decision. The judge will either sustain the objection (which means to stop what’s occurring) or they’ll overrule the objection (which means allow the action).

Once both your defense attorney and the prosecution have made their closing arguments, the jury will then deliberate. Once the jury is in agreement, they will announce their verdict.

8. Post-Trial Motions

If the verdict handed out finds you guilty, your defense attorney can file a post-trial motion.

There are several different motions your attorney can file, such as a motion for a new trial, motion for judgment of acquittal, or motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence.

9. Sentencing

The judge will take the jury’s verdict into consideration and then issue sentencing. The sentencing will determine whether you are innocent and allowed to go free, or guilty and handcuffed for prison.

10. Appeal

If you are found guilty, your defense attorney’s next step is to appeal to the Circuit Court.

An appeal is not another trial. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you and your defense attorney to raise concerns over errors that might have taken place during your trial. An example of this is appealing a judge’s decision to suppress key evidence.

Hire an Attorney

If you’re accused of a crime and bound for criminal court, you should hire an attorney. Only an attorney can navigate the complexities of the court system and increase your odds of winning.

If you live in the Austin, Texas area, consider using the services of Hamilton & Grant.

Contact us today for help with your DWI case.

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