Maybe you disobeyed a few too many traffic laws, or perhaps you drank a bit more than you should have and became unruly. It may have even been something more serious. No matter what the reason was, being arrested is a serious situation that could even lead to jail time. Knowing what to expect after you've been arrested can help you make sound decisions throughout the trial process.
The Arrest and Report
Before the state can officially charge you with a crime, the police must present an arrest report to the prosecutor. The report must provide all details, including what led to your arrest, where it happened, the date and time it happened, and whether there were any witnesses. The prosecutor uses the report to determine how to proceed.
The Prosecutor's Job
Depending on what the police report says, the prosecutor may file a complaint and bring charges by going directly to the trial court, presenting the evidence to a grand jury to decide whether to bring charges, or decide not to bring charges.
Prosecutors have a lot of freedom when deciding whether to pursue charges, and several situations factor into the decision. If the prosecutor is running for political office, he is more aware of his image in the public and wants to be seen favorably. If your arrest caused criminal outrage, you may receive charges, even if there is no solid evidence. Office policies are a factor as well. Sometimes, certain crimes are more likely to bring forth a charge than others. Finally, the prosecutor's own notion of justice about right or wrong may sway the decision.
The Role of the Grand Jury
Unlike petit juries, who are responsible for deciding if you're innocent or guilty, grand juries decide whether charges should be brought against you at all. The grand jury views evidence provided by the prosecutor, then votes on whether to bring charges. Grand juries meet secretly, can have as many as 23 members, and do not require a unanimous decision. In fact, it likely only needs a simple majority.
If the prosecutor decides to charge you, you'll typically go before a judge within 48 hours. This is your arraignment. During this time, you'll learn what charges were brought against you and hear your rights. You may also be asked how you plead ("not guilty" since you don't yet have a criminal defense lawyer), whether you qualify for bail, and whether you'll need a public defender. Future court dates may also be set at this time.
The Discovery Process
Before your trial, the prosecutor and your lawyer will go through the discovery process. In the past, prosecutors didn't receive information from the attorney about the case. This has changed in recent years because a two-way exchange saves time and protects victims and witnesses. The evidence exchange includes police reports and witness statements, as well as videos, photographs, and any other information gathered. The prosecutor cannot withhold any evidence he discovers on his own by law.
The Option to Plea Bargain
Most criminal cases are solved via plea bargaining. This is an agreement between yourself, your attorney, and the prosecutor that typically involves you pleading no contest or guilty to one or some of the charges against you. In exchange, the prosecutor may drop the rest of the charges against you or recommend a lesser sentence. You can make a plea deal anytime between your formal charge and the morning of your trial. Some judges may even let you take a plea deal in the middle of the trial.
If you decide not to take a plea bargain, your case will go to court. You have the right to a jury trial, but you can also waive your right to jury and ask that the judge decide your case. The jury consists of 6-12 people randomly selected and interviewed to assure no bias. The trial starts with opening statements, then moves to the presentation of evidence and witness testimony. Next, your lawyer can present counter-evidence and cross-examine any witnesses. Finally, the jury hears closing statements from both sides before deliberating and trying to reach a verdict. If enough jurors don't agree that you're guilty, your case may be dismissed or require a retrial.
If the jury (or judge, if you waived a jury) finds you guilty, you will receive a sentencing. Sometimes it occurs in a separate hearing. The judge will decide your punishment based on federal and state laws, your criminal history, how serious the crime was, and whether you seem remorseful. Depending on the crime, you may receive fines, jail or prison time, or simply be put on probation.
Remember, if you've been arrested and expect to go to trial, hiring an experienced criminal lawyer is essential to ensure you get the lowest sentence possible. Having a lawyer on your side is especially important if you are found guilty and want to appeal the ruling.