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What to Expect in a Criminal Case

Been arrested or know someone who has? Here's what to expect.

What to Expect In a Criminal Case

Many clients ask me at the beginning of their case what to expect, so here’s the basic process of a criminal case. Note: This generally applies to Garfield County Oklahoma and some surrounding counties. Other Counties may vary slightly, although the main events will be similar.

  1. ARREST: Almost all criminal prosecutions begin with an arrest. For minor misdemeanors, sometimes you will be given a ticket and released on your own recognizance. This is generally up to the officer to decide for things like Driving Under Suspension or Petit Larceny. If this is the case, you need to look carefully on your ticket to see if it is a municipal (city) ticket or a county ticket. You can usually tell by where you are directed to send the payment to. NEVER JUST PAY THE TICKET. There are many bad things that can happen if you just pay the ticket you may not be aware of, including potential loss of your drivers license and now being CONVICTED of that crime. ALWAYS call a lawyer and talk to them about potential drawbacks of sending money in for a ticket or just letting them take your bail. For most other crimes you will likely be charged in State Court and that is what the rest of this post details.
  2. BOND: An amount will be set for you to pay to ensure your appearance in Court. This amount varies greatly from county to county and many counties will have a specific bond schedule that will be followed in routine cases to determine your bond shortly after arrest. Bond schedules are arguably illegal, however, no one complains because they make it much easier to get out of jail much more quickly, and without the necessity of calling and waking up a grouchy judge at 3 AM. There are some charges that will likely not be on a bond schedule. For instance if you are arrested for Domestic Abuse, you are required to appear before a judge before a bond will be set. Some counties ignore this procedure and you can get out on a weekend, but most do not. If there is not a bond schedule, or the bond is very high, contact an attorney BEFORE you pay the bond. Many times I can get the bond reduced for you prior to paying the bond. For a typical DUI bond that is $1,000, it’s not that big of a deal, but if a bond is $50,000 and a judge might reduce it to $25,000, that saves you at least $2,500. You can either post a CASH BOND, which is the full amount of the bond, or hire a Bail Bondsman who will put up this money for you. If you post a cash bond, you will get the full amount of the bond back as long as you make all scheduled court appearances. For a bail bondsman, you will typically pay them around 10% of the bond. For example, a $5,000 bond = $500 to be paid by you, to the bondsman (there are sometimes other fees involved). The bondsman then promises to pay the Court Clerk the full $5,000 if you fail to appear for court. You DO NOT get what you pay to the bondsman back. That is their cost of doing business. Bondsmen vary widely in what terms they require, if they take payments, what they will do to revoke your bond, etc…so make sure you READ the contract and understand it before you sign it. If you are unhappy with the terms, go elsewhere. Most long term bondsmen treat their clients fairly because a reputation for yanking a bond for frivolous reasons will eliminate their business pretty quick.
  3. INITIAL APPEARANCE: For both misdemeanors and felonies, you will have an initial appearance before the magistrate or special judge shortly after being arrested. You will be given a copy of your charges (Information), advised of your rights (jury, attorney, remain silent) and asked to enter your plea. You should always plead not guilty at this stage. This allows the case to move forward. If you plead guilty at your initial appearance, the judge can sentence you on the spot to the maximum sentence allowed by law. What happens after this stage differs between whether you are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

MISDEMEANORS

  1. MISDEMEANOR DOCKET/BOND APPEARANCE: After your initial appearance you will be set on a misdemeanor status docket. In Garfield County these are held once a month, depending on your judge. These dockets are intended to keep track of your case, determine if you have hired a lawyer and to make sure your case gets resolved in a reasonable amount of time. If you have fully retained your lawyer (meaning paid 100%) of what you owe, he may not require your attendance at this docket. Always consult with your attorney to see if your presence is necessary at this docket. Sometimes an attorney will enter what is called a “special appearance” which signals to the Court that they are there for that day only and the attorney has no obligation to come to court on the next date unless you have something prearranged. This is most common if you have not fully retained the attorney at this point.
  2. PLEA AND DISPOSITION: If there are no issues with your case, or you do not want to set it for trial, the case will eventually be put on a Disposition Docket. This docket is where you enter your final guilty or no contest plea and are sentenced. I see a lot of people that are charged with misdemeanors try to plea it out without legal advice or hiring an attorney. This is usually a HUGE mistake. Even if the District Attorney has made an offer that doesn’t land you in jail, you have no idea whether that offer is reasonable. You have no idea if the length of the probation is normal for that case. You have no idea if the fine is acceptable or how it may affect your drivers license or your eligibility to get your arrest record expunged down the road. The ADA and the Judge are not a substitute for competent legal advice and they are under no obligation to tell you the ancillary ramifications of a guilty plea. DO NOT TRY TO DO IT ON YOUR OWN. To me, it’s like having a hurt tooth, and instead of going to a dentist, you just decide to pull it out yourself. CAN you do it yourself? Maybe. SHOULD you? Absolutely not.  A local lawyer for a misdemeanor is not very expensive, can often save you money elsewhere and you can be assured you are getting a reasonable deal.
  3. TRIAL: If you so not want to plead guilty or you are innocent of what you are being accused of, you have a right to a jury trial (6 jurors) in almost all misdemeanor cases. You, with the agreement of the State, may wish to waive your right to a jury trial and have it heard by a Judge. This is called a bench trial. You must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and if by a jury, the verdict must be unanimous.

FELONIES

  1. BOND APPEARANCE: After your initial appearance you will be set on a docket to appear for a “Bond Appearance” in front of a magistrate. These dockets are intended to keep track of your case, determine if you have hired a lawyer and to make sure you case gets resolved in a reasonable amount of time. The Court will only allow a couple of these appearances before forcing you to set the case for Preliminary Hearing, so make sure you get an attorney hired as soon as possible. Sometimes an attorney will enter what is called a “special appearance” which signals to the Court that they are there for that day only and the attorney has no obligation to come to court on the next date unless you have something prearranged. This is most common if you have not fully retained the attorney at this point. At some time during this process the State will likely offer your attorney a plea bargain for you. Whether this offer is reasonable varies wildly from case to case. If you intend to accept this offer, you will then be asked to waive the next step of the process, preliminary hearing.
  2. PRELIMINARY HEARING:  In all felony cases you have the right to a Preliminary Hearing. At this hearing the State is required to prove “probable cause” a crime has been committed and probable cause you are the one that committed it. Probable cause is a very low standard, and certainly nowhere near the beyond a reasonable doubt they are required to prove at trial. Essentially, it is a mini trial where witnesses will be called to try and submit at least a little evidence you are guilty of a crime. If the State has provided your attorney with appropriate reports before the preliminary hearing, you will usually not be allowed to call your own witnesses. This is not intended to substitute for an actual trial. The burdens are different and you generally don’t want your defense to be brought out this early anyway. However, this is still a critical step in the proceeding, especially if you have ANY doubts about accepting a plea bargain. There is much information that can be gained from a preliminary hearing and cross examination of the State’s witnesses. Do not waive your right to this hearing without seriously considering the impact of such a waiver. One caveat: in some cases, especially sex crimes cases, preliminary hearings can sometimes put you at risk for additional charges to be added. For example: sometimes a child sex victim will have initially only disclosed one or two different acts so that is all that is charged. At a preliminary hearing the child might disclose several more acts, so those acts are added as additional counts. IN any event, it is important to discuss this with your attorney.
  3. ARRAIGNMENT: This is your initial appearance in front of your trial judge after you have either been bound over or waived your preliminary hearing. This is also where you get a final copy of the charges the state intends to bring at trial. It is usually in front of Judge other than the one that took your waiver or heard the preliminary hearing. You can sometimes waive this requirement in counties where they have less judges so it doesn’t clog up the district judges docket.  You have a right to be arraigned within 30 days after your preliminary hearing. This is often waived if the next docket isn’t in time. You must file any motions to quash prior to arraignment or you have effectively waived that right. After arraignment you will again be placed on a bond appearance docket before the new judge.
  4. BOND APPEARANCE: Much like the earlier bond appearances, these are just status dates to make sure your case is proceeding either to trial or plea. How many bond appearances you will have is entirely determined by the Judge and whether you have a deal with the district attorney. After a couple of these your case will either be set for trial or plea and disposition.
  5. PLEA AND DISPOSITION: If there are no issues with your case, or you do not want to set it for trial, the case will eventually be put on a Disposition Docket. This docket is where you enter your final guilty or no contest plea and are sentenced. Though rare, I do see people try to plea out felonies without legal advice or hiring an attorney. This is usually a HUGE mistake. Even if the District Attorney has made an offer that doesn’t land you in jail, you have no idea whether that offer is reasonable. You have no idea if the length of the probation is normal for that case. You have no idea if the fine is acceptable or how it may affect your drivers license or your eligibility to get your arrest record expunged down the road. The ADA and the Judge are not a substitute for competent legal advice and they are under no obligation to tell you the ancillary ramifications of a guilty plea. DO NOT TRY TO DO IT ON YOUR OWN. To me, pleading a felony is like needing a root canal, and instead of going to a dentist, you just decide to do the root canal yourself. CAN you do it yourself? Probably not well. SHOULD you? Are you crazy?  While it is more expensive to hire a lawyer for a felony case, it is very worth it. Also, if you absolutely cannot afford a lawyer, you can apply for a court appointed lawyer.
  6. TRIAL: If you do not want to plead guilty or you are innocent of what you are being accused of, you have a right to a jury trial (12 jurors) in all felony cases. You, with the agreement of the State, may wish to waive your right to a jury trial and have it heard by a Judge. This is called a bench trial, but is rare in felony cases. You must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and if by a jury, the verdict must be unanimous.

So that’s a very general overview of the steps of criminal cases. My advice is to ALWAYS talk to a competent attorney before trying to undertake this on your own. You may not always get a better deal (you will a lot of the time), but you will have peace of mind knowing you aren’t signing up for something you will regret later.  Remember, I am not your lawyer until you hire me so this does not create an attorney/client relationship. This advice is just for your general knowledge and varies county to county.

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