When I am contact by people charged with a felony, one of the first questions I'm asked is: "What is the actual court process" for my case? Unless you know the process, it's really difficult to have any level of comfort or confidence. In a nutshell, here are the steps that occur in court: Arraignment; Preliminary Hearing; Entry of Plea; Status Conference; Pretrial Conference; Trial; Sentencing.
Let's take them one-at-a-time.
The first time someone accused of a felony sees a judge, it is an "Initial Appearance." The judge at an Initial Appearance is a "magistrate" judge. The Initial Appearance must generally occur within 24 hours of a person's arrest. At the Initial Appearance, the magistrate judge must advise the defendant of the following:
- The Defendant is not required to make a statement and that any statement may be used against the defendant;
- The nature of the charge or charges;
- The Defendant's right to bail;
- The Defendant's right to counsel (if the Defendant is unable to afford an attorney, one will be appointed at public expense)
- The Defendant's right to a Preliminary Hearing, the nature of the Preliminary Hearing, and the effect of a waiver of a preliminary hearing; and
- The Defendant's right to communicate with counsel and immediate family, and that reasonable means will be provided for the Defendant to do so.
Because the Initial Appearance happens so quickly (and it should), you may not have had the time to retain an attorney. Don't worry, there is typically a public defender present at the Initial Appearance to protect your rights. If you decide to hire an attorney after the Initial Appearance, it won't be an issue.
The next hearing that happens is the Preliminary Hearing. If you are in custody, the hearing must occur within 14 days; if you are out of custody, the hearing must occur within 21 days. The judge at a Preliminary Hearing is also a "magistrate" judge. It won't necessarily be the same one that conducted the Initial Appearance; don't worry if it isn't. A preliminary hearing is the State's opportunity to convince a judge that there is "probable cause" to believe a crime has been committed and that you committed it. "Probable cause" is a fairly low amount of evidence; much lower than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard required at a trial.
Nevertheless, the State must call witnesses to establish "probable cause" and the rules of evidence generally apply (with a few exceptions). That means witnesses with first-hand knowledge must come into court, be placed under oath, and answer questions. Although defense attorneys are permitted to ask questions, this is not a trial and many times the questions are limited. Not because they have to be, but because the defense attorney wants to "keep his or her powder dry" for trial. Because the "probable cause" standard is so low, it rarely does much good to call into question a witnesses testimony at the preliminary hearing stage.
It is important to note, if the State is not ready to proceed at the time set for the Preliminary Hearing, it can, in most instances, simply dismiss and re-file the case and that starts the clock all over again. It doesn't seem right, but it is!
If the State establishes "probable cause" you will be sent to appear in the district court. If the State fails to meet its burden, the case will be dismissed.
If "probable cause" is established at the Preliminary Hearing, you will be "bound over to the district court." This simply means you go from the magistrate court to the district court (because only district courts have the authority to preside over felony cases. At your Arraignment, you will again be informed of the charges against you and the maximum possible penalties. If you are going to plead not guilty and demand a trial, you'll enter that plea now and the case will be set for trial. In Idaho, under the speedy-trial requirements, your trial must occur within 180 days from the filing of the Criminal Information (which is filed after the Preliminary Hearing).
If you need more time to discuss your case with your attorney, or to consider a plea offer from the State, you can request the matter be set for an Entry of Plea Hearing in the relatively-near future (think 1-2 weeks).
Entry of Plea
If you needed more time at your Arraignment to consider your options, consult with your attorney, and make an informed decision about what plea to enter, an Entry of Plea Hearing will be held. This is your chance to tell the judge what your plea is. If you decide to plead not guilty and demand your constitutional right to a jury trial and force the State to 'prove it," that's what will happen and your trial will be scheduled within 180 days of the filing of the Criminal Information.
If you decide to plead guilty, you will likely have to fill out a "Written Guilty Plea Advisory" form. This is a multi-page document listing all the rights you are giving up as well as asking for the terms of any plea offer you are agreeing to. Read the document carefully and ask questions if you have them! It is important you understand exactly what is happening because you are "waiving" or "giving up" important rights if you plead guilty!
If you plead guilty, the judge will ask you what you did to make you guilty of the crime. You should be well-informed about the elements of the crime so you can successfully "allocute" or tell the judge why you are guilty. I've seen numerous instances where a person's attempt to plead guilty was unsuccessful because he or she couldn't allocute. When that happens, it is fine, the judge won't accept the guilty plea. More time may be given, or a not guilty plea entered at that time.
Some judges will set a Status Conference between the Entry of Plea and Pretrial Conference hearings. A Status Conference is just what it sounds like: it is a chance for the parties to check in with the judge and let him or her know how the case is proceeding, whether there are any issues that need to be addressed, and whether the case is still "on track" for the trial date.
A Pretrial Conference is the parties last chance before trial to inform the judge of the status of the case. According to Idaho Criminal Rule 18, the purpose of a Pretrial Conference is "to promote a fair and expeditious trial." This is a chance for the judge to ask if the parties are ready for trial. It is also an opportunity for the judge to discuss trial processes, pre-trial filings, and anything else that may need to be addressed.
A trial is where the State has to "prove it" beyond a reasonable doubt. Frankly, it is my favorite part of the process. This is the general process of a trial:
- Jury Selection (also known as Voir Dire)
- Opening Statements by the parties (the Defendant doesn't have to given an Opening Statement at this time and can "reserve" for when the defense case starts)
- State's Case-in-Chief where the State calls its witnesses to attempt to prove the elements of the crime charged and the defense attorney gets to cross-examine the same witnesses
- State Rests
- Defense Rule 29 Motion - this is a request to the judge to dismiss the case because no reasonable juror could find the Defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Defense Case-in-Chief where the defense calls witnesses. This is not mandatory and, in many instances, the defense won't put on any evidence and will simply argue the State hasn't proved it.
- Jury Instructions where the Court instructs the jury on the law applicable to the case
- Closing Arguments by the parties where each attorney argues the evidence and the verdict they believe is proper
- Deliberations where the jury decides your fate
- Reading of the Verdict
If the jury votes "Not Guilty" on the Verdict Form, the case is over and you are free to go. If the jury votes "Guilty" the matter will be set for a Sentencing Hearing. If the jury is deadlocked, the judge will either set a new trial date immediately, or will schedule a Status Conference.
If you are found guilty, the judge needs to sentence you. Before doing so, he or she will ask for a Presentence Investigation Report (known as a PSI or PSR). Your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination continues to the PSI process and you do not have to participate. If you are convicted, you and your attorney will discuss whether to participate in the process.
That's the "anatomy" of a criminal case from start-to-finish. In the coming weeks, I'll be breaking each stage down in a little bit more detail and discussing the nitty gritty of each.
At the end of the day, you need an attorney who knows the process and how to handle each step so you are best positioned to achieve your desired outcome. If you're charged with a felony, you should hire an attorney who knows his or her way around the courtroom! If we can help, please let us know by filling out a Contact Form or calling (208) 288-1888.