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Anatomy of a Criminal Case

The Anatomy of a Criminal Case

We often get questions about how long a criminal case takes to work its way through the system. While it depends greatly on the nature and complexity of the individual case, here is a walkthrough of how a case goes through the criminal justice system.

Arrest

This occurs when law enforcement believes that they have developed probable cause for an arrest. Probable cause is the lowest burden of proof under the law and essentially amounts to “did a crime probably happen and did that person probably do it”. This can either be a PC (probable cause) arrest when Law Enforcement investigates and makes the arrest of their own initiative, usually on the scene of the alleged offense, or via a warrant, where Law enforcement gathers their investigatory findings and either forwards the case to the Office of the State Attorney for review or to a Judge to issue a warrant. Law Enforcement will seek a warrant if the case is complex and they want a prosecutor’s review before arrest or they are unable to locate the target of the arrest. 

First Appearance

First Appearance is the first time an arrested individual will see a Judge. They are conducted every single day of the year, even on Christmas, and a prosecutor and assistant public defender are also present. The purpose of First Appearance is for a judge to review the case and determine if Probable Cause exists for a person’s continued detention. If the judge determines Probable Cause exists, they may modify the arrested bond amount, higher or lower, and add conditions of pretrial release such as no victim contact, no alcohol/ no bars, and don’t return to the incident location. If the judge determines that probable cause does not exist in the matter, the judge can either continue the first appearance for 24 hours to give Law Enforcement the opportunity to amend their report to include enough facts for such a finding or release the arrestee on their own recognizance (ROR). Even if the judge determines no PC, the case still goes through the steps outlined below. 
 

Arraignment

In between an arrest and the Arraignment, Law Enforcement’s file gets forwarded to the Office of the State Attorney to review. The case will be assigned to a prosecutor and that prosecutor will review the investigation, possibly meet with witnesses, review any electronic evidence collected, and may request the Investigators perform follow up tasks. Once the file is reviewed, the prosecutor will decide what charges, if any, the State will pursue. The common standard for filing charges is higher than probable cause and is what the prosecutor feels they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. The arraignment date is the court date where the formal charges are read into the record and the accused is called upon to enter a plea. There are two potential plea options, not guilty or no contest (guilty). In the vast majority of cases, a defendant will enter a not guilty plea at arraignment and seek representation. If you have hired a private attorney, they will commonly enter a written plea of not guilty and waive your formal arraignment. 

It is during this pre-arraignment time period where a proactive attorney can greatly affect the outcome of a case. The standard for filing charges is somewhat subjective and having an advocate pointing out why lesser charges may be more applicable to the given facts, or where the given facts may not be as clear cut as Law Enforcement would want to believe is invaluable. While it is true that the prosecutor can change or modify charges at any time during the pendency of the case, the practical component is that the charge initially filed sets the tone for possible outcomes.  A case can be won or lost during this pre-arraignment time period.

Pretrials/ Status

After Arraignment, the judge will set the case off for a status date. This gives both sides time to work on the case. Common practice is that the defense will file a Demand for Discovery, demanding that the prosecutor provide everything they have in the case. This includes all Law Enforcement reports, witness lists, pictures, 911 recordings, audio statements- everything that is in the government’s possession they have to notate and provide to the defense. Tangible items, such as drugs or weapons, the State has to notate in the Discovery Exhibit and make the item available for inspection. It is during this time that depositions, if appropriate, are conducted. 

Any defense witnesses or evidence are disclosed in reciprocal discovery. It is also during this time that plea negotiations are entered into, based on the strengths and weaknesses discovered while working through the case. If, during pretrial preparation, a motion to suppress or dismiss becomes viable, they will be researched, filed and litigated at this time. The duration of the pretrial portion of a case can vary widely based on the complexity of the case, availability of witnesses, any experts needed to be retained by the defense and the diligence of your attorney.



 

Trial

Once the defense is prepared, the Pretrial/ Status portion is completed. It is important that your defense attorney have the trial in mind from the beginning. At Caughey Law, we have a trial focus from the time we are retained. If the defense and the State are unable to reach a resolution in the matter, the case will be set for trial. A trial begins with jury selection, or voir dire, where each of the attorneys is able to ask potential jurors about thoughts, feelings and preconceived notions that may come up during the trial in an effort to get the most fair jury for the case. For example, in a marijuana possession case, the prosecutor wouldn’t want an active member of NORML, while the defense may not want a juror with deep rooted beliefs that any substance use, even caffeine, is immoral. Each side can strike a potential juror for cause, if it is clear they cannot be fair in the matter, or in line with a trial strategy using a limited number of peremptory strikes.

Once a jury is selected the evidentiary portion of the trial starts, often with opening statements, then with the prosecution’s case in chief. It is the prosecutor’s burden to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. They do this by calling witnesses and presenting evidence and testimony. Your defense attorney is able to cross examine the witnesses to discredit or push against the testimony. If a witness testifies differently at trial than in depositions, they may be able to be impeached with prior sworn statements. When the prosecutor completes their presentation of evidence, they rest. After the prosecution rests, the defense is able to call witnesses to present the defense side of the case. At the conclusion of the evidentiary portion, both sides get to give a closing argument where they explain to the jury what has or has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Once closing arguments are given, the jury will be read the law of the case, called jury instructions, and then will be sent to deliberate among themselves until a verdict is reached. When a verdict is reached, if not guilty, the case will be closed and the defendant discharged. If guilty, as charged or of a lesser included offense, sentencing will take place, either that same day or be set off for a sentencing hearing, depending on the legal status of the defendant and schedule of the judge. 

VOPS

If a defendant is sentenced to probation they must abide by the probation rules and any special conditions ordered. If the probation officer believes a violation has occurred, the officer can send a technical letter to the judge, alerting the judge of a possible violation. Technical letters are typically used for minor or near violations of the terms of probation.

If the probation officer feels a meaningful violation has occurred, they will complete a Violation of Probation Affidavit and forward it to the judge for review and issuance of a warrant. In the Fifth Circuit, Citrus, Hernando, Sumter, Marion and Lake counties, a VOP warrant will typically carry a NO BOND and the subject will have to wait in custody while the case is pending. Because the accused is typically in custody pending a resolution, a VOP moves through the system very quickly- often only pending for 6-8 weeks. 

 

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