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Process of a Criminal Case

If you have never been arrested before, the process of a criminal case and what happens after the arrest can be very confusing. That is why it is a good idea to have an attorney represent you, who will not only help guide you through the process and answer any questions you may have, but who can help you explore all possible defenses and achieve the best possible outcome in your case.

1. Arrest

The arrest is often the first step and the start of a criminal case. Police must have a valid reason to place a defendant in custody. These reasons would either involve the police observing the suspect commit a crime or the police having probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime. In the alternative, the police may also arrest a suspect if they have an arrest warrant. If the defendant only committed a minor offense, such as a misdemeanor or a traffic infraction, police has the option of issuing what is called a notice to appear or a citation instead of an arrest. The information about the arrest or the notice to appear is then forwarded to the court as well as the state attorney’s office. Upon receiving the information, the court will start the criminal process and set the first court hearing. The state attorney’s office will also open a file and assign an assistant state attorney to handle the case.

2. First Appearance / Bond Hearing

After an arrest is made, the defendant may have a chance to bond out of jail right away depending on the charges and circumstances. For most charges, a standard bond will be set based upon the bond sheet. For some charges or in some circumstances a defendant will not be allowed to bond out and no bond will be set per the standard bond sheet. In Tampa, Hillsborough County that will include charges for domestic violence or violation of probation for example. If no bond is set per the bond sheet or if the defendant has not bonded out yet, a first appearance hearing will take place within 24 hours of the arrest. At that hearing, the judge will look to make sure there was probable cause for the arrest and if there was the judge will determine the bond. When considering bond the judge will look at the charges, the strength of the evidence, any prior convictions that the defendant may have as well as the defendant’s ties to the community or risk that the defendant will not come back to court. For most criminal charges the judge will set a bond and may in fact be required to set a bond. For example, even though a defendant arrested for domestic violence will not have a bond when first arrested, the judge will have to set a bond at the first appearance hearing. However, if the defendant is charged with violation of probation, the first appearance judge does not have to set a bond and in Hillsborough County will often not set a bond but rather leave that decision up to the judge who will hear the violation of probation.

Depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, the first appearance judge may either lower or raise any bond that was based on the standard bond sheet. This means that defendants with a lengthy prior criminal record may be better off bonding out before the first appearance hearing and before the judge may raise the bond. First appearance is not the only chance to address bond. A skilled defense attorney can always file and argue for a bond at any point in the criminal process.

3. Arraignment

If you only receive a notice to appear or bond out before the first appearance, the arraignment will be your first court date. At the arraignment the judge will read the charges to the defendant and determine whether or not the defendant already has an attorney or if the defendant is in need of an attorney. This is when the judge may appoint the public defender’s office if needed. If you have already retained our firm prior to the arraignment, Kerstin Wade is able to waive your presence by filing the necessary paperwork letting the court know that we represent you. The court will then set a new court date, which is called a disposition in Hillsborough County or pretrial in many other counties.

In a felony case, the state attorney has to file charges before they can proceed with the prosecution. An arrest alone is not sufficient. The prosecutor will make a decision on whether or not they will file criminal charges and if they do, what charges they will file before the arraignment. A criminal defense attorney can contact the prosecutor and speak to them regarding the case and can present any information that may prevent the filing of criminal charges or convince the state to file reduced charges. That is why it is important to retain a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible and before the arraignment.

4. Pretrial Court Hearing(s)

After the arraignment follows the pretrial process. This can be a lengthy process and involves the state attorney’s office sending the evidence to the defense attorney. The defense attorney then has a chance to examine the state’s evidence and collect any additional evidence, including any potential witnesses who could testify on your behalf. When examining the state’s evidence Kerstin Wade will look at any potential weaknesses in the prosecution’s case as well as any facts that may allow for the exclusion of evidence. This is the stage when any pretrial motions would be filed. Based on everything that is discovered, your defense attorney will speak to the prosecutor and try to negotiate a favorable outcome for you. If you want to accept an offer from the state, you would do so at this stage of the case. Because th

5. Trial

If a criminal case cannot be resolved with a plea, the case will be set for trial. You have a right to a jury trial under the constitution but you can waive that right and ask for a trial by just the judge. What option is best for your case will depend on the case. A knowledgable Tampa criminal defense attorney can help guide you through this process and the decision making. At the trial is when you have a chance to question the state’s witnesses and when you have a chance to call witnesses on your behalf. You may testify but do not have to do so. If you decide not to testify, the jury will be instructed that they cannot hold that decision against you. It is important to have an attorney represent you at trial because an attorney will be familiar with the rules of evidence. What evidence the jury is allowed to hear can make or break your case.

6. Sentencing

If you enter a plea or are found guilty at trial, the next step would be sentencing. In case of a negotiated plea, you would already know what the proposed sentence is. It is important to know that even though you have agreed to the proposed sentence by the prosecutor, the judge is not obligated to accept the plea bargain. Technically, the judge could refuse the accept the plea, possibly because he or she does not think that the sentence is sufficient. However, an experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to speak to the judge and put you in the best possible position for the judge to accept the proposed sentence. If you enter what is called an open plea or are found guilty at trial, this is when the judge will consider any circumstances and facts from both the prosecution and the defense. The judge will then make a decision on what the appropriate sentence should be.

As you can see a lot of work is done outside of court and “behind the scene.” That is why it is important to have a knowledgable Tampa criminal defense attorney even if you think your case may be simple. Even if you think you are guilty, a defense attorney may be able to find weaknesses in the prosecution’s case and would be able to help you achieve the best possible outcome. If you are charged with or have been arrested for a crime, call us today at 813-401-0130 to set up a free consultation to speak with Kerstin Wade.