Criminal Court Process

Being introduced into the criminal justice system can be quite frightening. You have probably never faced criminal prosecution, making it a journey into the unknown. Having an experienced attorney with you, however, can elevate your confidence and you knowledge of the process.

Although all cases are different, there are certain stages that all criminal cases go through. Knowing what stages your case will follow can give you a clear direction and make you feel slightly better about the uncertainty that lies before you.

From the moment you are arrested the long process has begun. Very few cases make it all the way through the entire criminal justice process. Your case may be resolved through a plea agreement, through a pre-trial diversion, or possibly your charges may be dropped all together.

Arrest

Your arrest may happen under a variety of circumstances. A police officer or other law enforcement might serve an arrest warrant on you. You may also be arrested without a warrant under some circumstances.

For instance, if the police witness you commit a crime or if sufficient probable cause exists to believe you committed a serious enough offense, you can be arrested on the spot.

It is important for your attorney to hear all of the facts surrounding your arrest. Serious specific procedural laws are in place that govern how arrests must happen in the state of Tennessee. If an officer fails to follow correct arrest procedures, your charges may not hold up in court.

First Appearance/Arraignment

Your first appearance in court typically happens within the first few days of your arrest. This is where you will be informed of the charges against you and some of your rights. The judge may also address the issue of bail at this point.

If you are charged with a less serious misdemeanor, you will most likely given the opportunity to enter a plea at this point. If you are given the option of entering a plea, “not guilty” is a safe plea until you have had an opportunity to speak with your attorney.

Bail

Essentially bail is a promise to appear for future court dates. A judge will take several things into consideration when considering your eligibility for bail. First and foremost, the judge will look at your charge. Some more serious offenses are not eligible for bail at all.

Also, a judge will consider such things as your criminal history and ties to the community. A judge will not release someone he believes to be a risk to themselves, the community, or at risk of not returning for future court dates, commonly referred to as a “flight risk”.

Preliminary Hearing

Felony cases will typically go through a preliminary hearing where the judge will listen to the prosecution and determine if enough evidence exists for the case to move to trial. Although the preliminary hearing resembles a trial in structure, this is not where the judge will determine your guilt or innocence.

Grand Jury

A grand jury will further examine the case if the judge decides it is worthy of being “bound over” to a Tennessee circuit court. This panel of 13 will again determine if enough evidence exists to send the case to trial. If it does, you will be “indicted”, or formally charged.

Arraignment

For felony charges, you will face a second arraignment at the circuit court level. This again, is where the circuit court judge will inform you of the charges against you and review bail.

Plea Agreements

The majority of criminal cases in Tennessee are resolved through plea agreements or plea bargains. In the interest of getting a conviction or guilty plea, the prosecution will often lower the charges against you.

For instance if your plan is to plead not guilty to a charge of 1st degree assault, the prosecutor may offer you a charge of assault in the 3rd degree with a lesser sentence if you agree to plead guilty.

Occasionally plea agreements are a good arrangement for all parties involved. As your attorneys, we can help you decide if a plea bargain is a smart move in your case.

Pre-trial motions

Waiting for your trial date can be stressful and tiresome. Rest assured that all of the pre-trial motions are done to ensure both sides are totally prepared for trial. Things like discovery, motions to suppress evidence and continuances are all done in the interest of having a fair and complete trial.

Trial

1.      Opening Statements: Each side (the prosecution followed by the defense) will have the opportunity to introduce their case. The prosecution will inform the jury what will be proven in the trial while the defense will refute the charges.

2.      Presentation of Evidence: This stage of the trial can be the longest. It is during the presentation of evidence that the prosecution attempts to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you committed the crime you are charged with. This is where witnesses will be called and questioned by both sides.

The prosecution and defense take turns both in presenting evidence and questioning witnesses. This back and forth can go on indefinitely until both parties are satisfied.

3.      Closing Arguments: Closing arguments are the last opportunity each side will have to address the jury and judge before the verdict. This is often where the attorneys really give it their best shot in attempting to sway the jury to their side.

4.      Judge’s Instructions to the Jury: Also known as the judge’s charge this is where the judge informs the jury of their legal duties.

5.      Jury Deliberations: The jury will retire to private chambers to decide your fate. A jury’s decision must be unanimous.

6.      Verdict: Once the jury has reached a decision, the judge will enter a verdict. If you have been found guilty, the judge may sentence you that day but will most likely set sentencing for a future date.

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