Criminal Court Made Simple
Most people do not have to deal with the criminal justice system, however, if you or your family members end up having to, I think it is helpful to describe the basic process of the criminal justice system.
The first step is an arrest. This step will require probable cause that a person has committed a crime by a police officer. This is typically where a person is handcuffed and detained by the police without the ability to leave. An arrest may come after an investigation or subsequent to a stop by a police officer (for example being pulled over for a DWI). The information that the police officer obtains through either means is what determines his probable cause (in the case of a DWI, this will be the police officer observing a driver speeding or failing to use turn signals).
If a person is arrested for a small crime, sometimes they will be issued a ticket and they will not be detained in jail. It is very similar to getting any traffic ticket, and sometimes even a DWI will lead to no arrest or bond. If a person is arrested for a serious crime, they are taken to jail and a bond is set by the duty judge presiding at the time. In Calcasieu Parish, the amount of bond is determined without a set schedule and is often largely determined by the severity of the alleged crime. Please remember, the judge who sets the bond is not automatically the judge who will preside over any criminal case that may occur afterwards.
The purpose of bond is an agreement between the court and the accused defendant that he or she will be allowed to pay money to the court and will be released. The person must agree to be present for all court dates that may come as a result of the prosecution of this crime. Bond is only meant to ensure that an accused defendant makes all of his or her court dates. If you miss a court date, your bond may be forfeited and revoked, and you may be placed back in jail. If you cannot pay the full bond, a bondsman may be necessary.
For serious crimes, once a person is arrested and is either in jail or has bonded out, the police report and applicable information is forwarded to the prosecution. This may be a City Prosecutor or the District Attorney’s office. The prosecutor will review the information and if they feel the information is strong enough, the prosecutor will accept the charges and a formal prosecution will commence.
At this stage, you will be notified to appear in court for an arraignment. Typically if a court date is not listed on your ticket, you will be mailed a notice of arraignment. If you are accused of a small crime and are given a ticket instead of being placed in custody and sent to jail, sometimes the ticket issued will have your arraignment date on it.
It is VERY important that if you change your address between arrest and arraignment that you notify the court and your bondsman of this change. If you do not go through the proper process, you may miss your arraignment notice and you may suffer a bench warrant and bond forfeiture.
An arraignment will be done in court and in front of the presiding judge and with the prosecutor present. At arraignment, the State will formally accuse the Defendant of the alleged crime and the Defendant will be given the opportunity to plead: (1) guilty, (2) no contest, or (3) not guilty. If the Defendant pleads guilty (or no contest), the Defendant is found guilty as if a judge or jury found him so, and is sentenced at that moment. If the Defendant pleads not guilty, he is assigned a trial date and given notice in open court of this date. This will typically be the only formal notice given of this date, and it is the Defendant’s responsibility to be present for this trial date (and if the trial date is continued down the road, for all future trial dates).
Between arraignment and trial, there may be hearings held regarding the prosecution. Notice of these hearings is typically handled by the court, however your attorney may notify you of these hearings.
The final piece of a prosecution is trial. I will not get into the details of a trial in this blog article (it deserves its own full article), but if the Defendant proceeds to trial, the prosecutor will be charged with presenting evidence proving that the Defendant committed the alleged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt. In a DWI trial, this will be done with evidence relating to the traffic stop, the breathalyzer test, the field sobriety tests, an the testimony of the arresting/investigating police officer(s). If the judge or jury finds this burden met, the Defendant will be found guilty. If this burden is not met by the State, then the Defendant will be found not guilty and the charges will be dismissed.
If you are or a family member is accused of a crime, you need to speak to an attorney. This article is meant to serve as a short summary of the major points of the process and is not meant to provide legal advice. You should contact me to discuss this in more detail if you have any questions about defending any alleged crimes.