What to expect in your criminal case
To our clients, their families and friends:
Many of our clients have no experience with the criminal justice system. Please allow me to explain how your case may progress. I trust this will answer many of your questions, and give you confidence in the attorneys and staff in our office.
Most criminal cases begin with an arrest. This usually means a trip to the local jail, where you may be held until a bond is set. Within 72 hours (3 days), you will be taken before a Magistrate Judge, who will set a bond—in most cases. If you are accused of certain serious crimes, the law only allows a Superior Court Judge to set a bond, and it may take several weeks to get an opportunity to ask for a bond.
When you appear before the Magistrate to have bond set, this is called a 1st Appearance. Please understand that this Judge cannot release you, and it will do you no good—and may harm your case—to tell him your story. His only purpose at this hearing is to set the amount of bond necessary for your release.
When your bond has been set, there are several ways you can post bond. Most people use a bondsman. By paying a bondsman 12-14% of the total amount of the bond, you can be released from the jail. This money, however, is a payment that can not be recovered; it’s just what it costs you to get out of jail. If your family or friends are able to raise the entire amount of your bond, they can post it in cash. This money will be returned to the person who posted it when your case is over, as long as you always appear in Court when required. You can also make a property bond, which means someone takes proof of property they own to the Sheriff, and pledge the property to assure your appearance in Court. If you fail to attend Court when required, the money or property posted for your release will be forfeited—your family will lose the property.
If the bond set is more than you or your family can raise, your attorney can ask the Court to reduce it. It can take several weeks to get the request before the Court, and there is no guarantee that the Court will reduce the bond. To get your bond reduced, it’s important to show the Court that you have friends and family, a job, a place to live, and that you can be trusted to come to Court when required—and that you will not break the law while you’re on bond.
Most people desperately want to tell the Judge about their case. You may think that if you can just tell your version of what happened, you’ll be released and the case will be over. WRONG. A bond hearing is just that—a bond hearing. The only issue is to show the Court why you should be allowed to be released from jail until your case is resolved. You may be frustrated when your attorney won’t let you testify and tell your story, but please understand that the attorney knows the process, and truly has your best interest at heart. It is important to trust the attorney, and to understand that there is nothing to be gained by telling everyone your story at the wrong times. You’ll have your chance, but it may be months before it comes.
A bond hearing may also be an opportunity for you and your attorney to learn more about your case—who is accusing you, some of the evidence that will be used against you, and how serious the prosecutor views your case. Even though you can’t yet tell your story, you can learn a lot about the other side of the case.
Sometimes, especially when the charges are very serious, your attorney may request a preliminary hearing. Again, this is not a chance for you to tell your story, but is another opportunity for you and your attorney to learn more about the charges against you. In fact, sometimes this is so important that your attorney may encourage you to remain in jail for a time, to allow a preliminary hearing to be held. If you make bond, you lose your right to this kind of hearing, and you may not have another opportunity to hear some of the evidence against you until the actual trial.
After the bond hearing, hopefully you’ll be released from jail. You MUST stay in touch with your attorney, and at the attorney’s request, tell the attorney everything about your case. But, understand that the case will usually take months—sometimes longer—to be resolved. This is true whether you are in jail or out on bond, and there is very little an attorney can do to speed the process, unless you quickly enter a guilty plea—which we do not encourage. You may not appreciate this if you are in jail, but it is almost always to your advantage to let a case linger. Just understand that your attorney hasn’t forgotten you and is not neglecting you. Your attorney is using the system to your advantage. Be sure to talk with us if you have questions, and do stay in touch.
The next step in the process is your arraignment. You must appear in Court and enter your “Not Guilty” plea. Again, your attorney will guide you through this process. It is usually very informal, and only takes a few minutes. However, because there will be so many people doing the same thing, you can expect to be at the Court for perhaps 3 hours or longer. Your attorney will be rushed, will be helping you and many other clients, and you may feel ignored. This is just a step in the process, and—once again—you will not be able to tell your story.
As soon as you have been arraigned, your attorney will file “Motions” in your case. These are formal pleadings and requests for information about your case—“Discovery.” At some future time, the District Attorney’s office will respond to these motions, and share with us much of the information they have about your case. However, the law does not require a response from the prosecutor until very near the time of trial. Again, the process is slow. This does not mean your attorney is not interested, it is simply that cases take time.
Depending on the facts of your case, there may be other hearings in Court to decide issues about your case. If you made a statement to a law enforcement officer, there may be a hearing to determine if it was properly done. If your home or vehicle was searched, there may be a hearing about that. There are many situations that might require a hearing before the Court; however, it is almost never appropriate for you to testify at those hearings.
Throughout the criminal process, anything you say can be used against you. Until you actually get to trial, it takes very little evidence against you for the case to progress. None of the hearings are designed to set you free or to end the case. Through all the hearings, the goal of your attorney is to limit what can be used against you or to learn more about the evidence. None of the hearings will happen quickly. There’s nothing you can say that will change the process. Your attorney can guide you and protect you, but cannot speed the process.
Cases in our circuit are scheduled for trial based on the severity of the charges and whether the accused is in jail. If you are on bond while awaiting trial, and unless your charges are very serious, your case may take many months. During that time, we’re taking the steps necessary to investigate and prepare your case. As you get higher on the trial priority calendar, we will spend more time with you.
While we await your trial, you will be required to appear in Court from time to time. You must stay in touch with us, and notify us immediately if you move or if your phone number changes. Feel free to call us anytime. As your case gets closer to trial, we’ll spend more and more time with you. We have many clients, but our goal is to give you the best possible defense.
Circuit Public Defender