The criminal process can feel extremely confusing and overwhelming, particularly if this is your first experience with it. Aside from the nervousness over appearing in court and worrying about what will happen to you, you might be anxiously wondering what the next steps are and what happens at each one.
After you are arrested, the first time you appear in court is at your arraignment hearing. This is where you are formally read the charges against you, get advised of your rights and are asked to enter a plea. You can plead guilty, not guilty or no contest.
If you plead not guilty, your case will then be scheduled for a pre-trial hearing. Depending on what your charges are and the other circumstances of your case, you could be free until the pre-trial hearing, be held in jail or be required to post bail while you wait for your pre-trial hearing date.
You might end up having more than one pre-trial hearing if there are unresolved issues or the goals set at the last pre-trial hearing have not been met.
A pre-trial hearing is a meeting between all parties to the case, including you, your attorney if you have one, the prosecutor and a judge. One of the topics to be discussed at your first pre-trial hearing is likely to be discovery.
This is a term for the formal exchange of information and evidence between you and the prosecution. You can request that the judge order the prosecution to provide you with all evidence they have related to your case, such as police reports, witness statements or videos.
If the judge orders the exchange of evidence, they will set a date by which the evidence should be exchanged. You may or may not be required to appear in court on that date to confirm that the evidence was completely and properly exchanged.
Otherwise, if you have not received all your requested evidence by the date, you can file a motion to appear before the judge and ask them to re-order the prosecution to turn over the evidence.
Trial and settlement discussions
A pre-trial hearing is also viewed as an opportunity for you and the prosecution to try to come to an agreement on certain issues, such as the number of witnesses each side will call, who the witnesses will be and what evidence will be entered or suppressed.
Although you might have a series of pre-trial hearings, the court will eventually schedule a trial at one of the hearings. Your case might get resolved at any point during this process, even up until the date of trial.
The prosecution could determine that they do not have enough evidence to prove their case against you or the judge could dismiss your case if you file a motion to dismiss. A common resolution involves a plea deal.
This means you plead guilty to a lesser charge or the prosecution offers a penalty that you accept in exchange for pleading guilty. For example, if you are charged with a felony and facing jail time, the prosecution may offer to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and offer you probation if you plead guilty.
These are major decisions that often affect the rest of your life. You should not make them, or go through any part of the criminal process, without advice and guidance.