Although being charged for misdemeanor or felony matters is different, because the latter is, in fact, more serious than the former, the criminal trial process for both types of offenses are virtually the same, except for a couple of differences.
The criminal trial process technically begins when the State has formally decided to pursue charges against the accused. For both types of matters, the criminal trial process initially includes, the conducting of arraignment, preliminary hearings, trial, and sentencing, if the accused has been found guilty. The matter of distinction is this: in a misdemeanor case, the matter is presented to the Court first, but in a felony case, for charges to be elevated to the felony level, a grand jury (special panel convened to assess evidence to see if there is enough to charge a felony) is held. If the grand jury finds that there is enough evidence, the accused is indicated on felony charges.
Moving on, arraignment is really considered the first appearance in the process. At this appearance, the accused is formally read the charges against him or her, and enters a plea. Often times, to ensure that a person’s constitutional rights have been protected, courts will not prohibit entries of guilty verdict. If a defendant decides that he or she wants to plead guilty, then that can be done at a later court date such as at a preliminary hearing.
Preliminary hearings are court appearances in which certain issues of evidence and law are discussed and, if there are contentious issues, resolved. For instance, in cases where it may appear that statements made to law enforcement were involuntarily obtained. In order to assess the veracity of such claims and decide whether such statements had been unconstitutionally obtained, and consequently, whether they ought to be deemed admissible or inadmissible at trial, a Huntley hearing can be held.
Beyond preliminary hearings, criminal matters can move on to motions. Motions are written as well as oral arguments made on points of law that are in contention, and are being requested to be ruled upon by a judge. Whereas hearings are held to examine evidence, motions can be viewed as supplementary as well as complementary, as they are the procedural devices used and submitted to courts to request a definitive answer on these contentious issues. So, if there is evidence that a defendant’s statements were made involuntarily, depending upon the alleged particulars of the situation and case, defense counsel can submit motions, outlining why the Court should grant the relief requested in such paperwork.
Next in the process is jury selection, if the matter is a jury trial, or if the matter will be heard before a judge, the matter can proceed to trial. The duration of the trial can be less than a day or more than several months. Typically, however, trials tend to be pretty short. Often, the media skews how long criminal trials last. Sure, there are cases that have gone on for months such as high profile cases, but that is not the norm. At the conclusion of a trial, a verdict is rendered or conversely, if there is a jury, and that jury cannot agree, the decision will be one of a mistrial. A mistrial does not mean that the accused is permanently off the hook because the prosecutor may decide to retry the case. However, if the defendant is found not guilty, that is the end of it, so to speak. If the defendant is found to be guilty, then the process moves on to the sentencing phase, which can often include conducting a pre-sentence investigation and report to comb through the convicted’s personal and criminal history to see which form of penalty would be most suitable. Such penalty options can include a combination of jail or prison time, fines, or community service, as well as probation with specific conditions. Upon the conclusion of sentencing, the matter is over as far as the court of original jurisdiction is concerned. This simply means that while the court in which the matter was held has concluded the matter, the convicted still has the power to appeal the verdict in the appellate system.