First Appearance: This step applies only to felony cases; skip to number three if you are interested in misdemeanor cases. At the first appearance, the defendant will be formally notified of the charges and may be advised of his/her rights by a magistrate. A date is set for a preliminary hearing, which the defendant may waive. In felony cases, no plea is entered at this stage.
Preliminary Hearing: The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine:
whether probable cause exists to show the crime was committed, and
whether probable cause exists to show the defendant was the person who committed the crime.
At the hearing, the judge listens to witnesses' testimony and evidence. If the judge finds probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the defendant is then bound over for trial. If the judge concludes there is insufficient evidence, the case is dismissed. Charges may be amended at the preliminary hearing.
Arraignment: The judge reads the information to the defendant, who must enter a plea. If the plea is "guilty," the defendant will be scheduled for sentencing. If the plea is "not guilty," a pretrial conference and trial dates are usually scheduled. A "not guilty" plea preserves all of the defendant's options. There are also two other types of pleas:
No Contest: This has the same procedural effect as a guilty plea, but rather than admitting guilt, the defendant admits that the prosecutor would likely prevail at trial. Some judges will not accept this plea.
Alford plea: This plea may be used when the defendant wants the advantage of a plea bargain, but cannot or will not admit guilt. Instead, the defendant pleads to avoid the potential consequences of going to trial, and pleads without admitting guilt. Some judges will not approve this type of plea.
Pre-Trial Motions: Before a trial begins, the prosecution and defense may file any number of motions with the court. A motion is a formal request to a judge to issue an order. These may include motions to suppress a defendant's prior convictions, motions to suppress evidence, or requests for discovery. If a defendant would like to file a motion, it must be done five days before the trial and must be in writing. All motions should be heard and decided by the judge before a trial can proceed..
Pre-Trial Conference: At its discretion, the trial court may hold a pre-trial conference in which the prosecutor and defense attorney attempt to negotiate settlement of the case. A judge may refuse to approve a proposed settlement. Cases not settled are set for trial.
Plea-Bargaining: In this process, the prosecutor and defense attorney negotiate a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case. The judge does not participate in the plea bargaining process, but must approve the proposed disposition. The defendant also must approve the plea bargain. If all parties accept the plea bargain, and the defendant enters a guilty plea, the next step is the defendant's sentencing.
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