Overview of the Criminal Justice Process

Overview of the Criminal Justice Process

Navigating the criminal justice system can be a confusing a frightening experience. The expert legal staff at Open Legal Services stand ready to assist you at every critical stage while maintaining an atmosphere of respect and understanding.  Our experienced attorneys will keep you informed and guide you through all of the procedural traps and obstacles along the way to ensure that your rights are protected.

If you have been charged with a Class B misdemeanor, Class C misdemeanor or Infraction, there are four essential stages to the process:

  • Arraignment2016 Criminal Process
  • Pretrial Conference
  • Trial
  • Sentencing

Felony and Class A misdemeanor charges require an additional three stages at the beginning:

  • Initial Appearance
  • Roll Call
  • Preliminary Hearing

Each stage can range in time from a few minutes in the courtroom to several hours. However, some of the stages can be waived entirely.  To help clarify the process, we have created a flow chart and descriptions of the various hearings you will likely encounter after you have been charged with a crime.

 

Initial Appearance
(Felonies and Class A Misdemeanors only)

The initial appearance is a formality designed to initiate legal proceedings for felony cases.  This hearing generally lasts only a few minutes.  You will meet with your attorney before the scheduled hearing, and he/she will escort you into the courtroom.  There you will wait until your name is called.  The judge will then inform you of the charges that have been filed against you and ask if you understand them.  If necessary the judge will address any bail or release terms and make sure that you have retained counsel.  Your attorney will address the court on your behalf.  Though your presence is necessary during the initial appearance, your role is minimal.

 

Roll Call/Scheduling Conference
(Felonies and Class A Misdemeanors only)

The roll call is a brief meeting between your attorney and the prosecutor intended to discuss evidence available at the time and any possible plea bargains. Your attorney will let you know whether a plea bargain has been offered and advise you on the benefits and consequences of the decision to accept any plea offers.   Should a plea bargain not be reached at this time, you and your attorney will then discuss whether to exercise your legal right to have a preliminary hearing.

 

Preliminary Hearing
(Felonies and Class A Misdemeanors only)

The preliminary hearing is a process by which the court decides if there is enough evidence to justify a trial.  At a preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must prove each of the elements of the charges brought against you. This hearing resembles a traditional trial in both formality and length of time, generally lasting several hours.  However, unlike a trial, the purpose is not to decide innocence or guilt.  Instead, the judge will only decide on whether there is sufficient evidence to move forward in the proceedings against you. 

If the judge decides that there is sufficient probable cause based on the evidence, the charges will be “bound over” and a new date will be set for the arraignment.  On the other hand, if the prosecutor fails to satisfy the “probable cause standard” due to unavailability of witnesses or insufficiency of evidence, the charges may be reduced or even dismissed entirely.

Unlike the initial appearance you may choose to waive the hearing altogether.  For strategic reasons, it is often in your best interest to waive this hearing; however, choosing to go ahead with the hearing provides an opportunity to identify key witnesses, weigh testimony, and negotiate a better plea bargain with the prosecutor.  Prior to the preliminary hearing, your attorney will discuss the benefits and consequences of choosing to waive the hearing.

 

Arraignment

The purpose of the arraignment is for you to enter your plea (guilty, not guilty, or no contest).  This hearing is short, generally lasting only a few minutes in court.  Prior to the arraignment, your attorney will discuss the benefits and consequences of this choice. Your attorney may be able waive this stage in Justice Court depending on the type of crime charged and plead on your behalf.

 

Pretrial Conference

A pretrial conference, like a roll call, is an opportunity for your attorney and the prosecutor to meet regarding your case.  During this meeting, the attorneys will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the case and prepare for trial.  The prosecutor will then make any last-minute plea offers, which could include dismissal of charges or reduction of charges in exchange for a guilty plea. 

Another possible plea resolution is a “plea in abeyance” wherein a person pleads guilty to the charge, and the person must comply with certain terms such as paying a fine, taking classes and avoiding future violations of the law for a period of time. If the person complies with the terms, the case will be dismissed; however, a violation of the terms of the agreement will result in a conviction.  Your attorney will inform you of any plea offer and negotiate on your behalf to achieve the best resolution.  Ultimately it is your decision whether or not to accept the agreement.

Should you decide to agree to a plea bargain, the offer will be presented to the court and you may be sentenced at that time or at a later date. However, if all the evidence has not been obtained or you would like some time to think about the offer, the matter may be rescheduled to another date. As always, the decision to accept any offer is up to you and, if you do not want to take the offer, the case can move forward to trial.

 

Trial

During a trial, evidence is presented to either a jury or a judge who weighs the evidence and decides whether a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial process can be both lengthy and expensive, generally lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and costing thousands of dollars. 

A trial starts with opening arguments made by the prosecutor and the defense attorney.  Next, the attorneys present their respective cases by a showing of evidence and testimony beginning with the prosecution.  During this time, both the prosecutor and defense attorney may raise objections, and cross-examine witnesses.   A trial concludes with closing arguments presented by both sides and the rendering of a verdict by the Judge or a jury of your peers.

 

Sentencing

If a person is found guilty after trial or pleads guilty in a plea bargain, the person is then sentenced by the court. A sentencing hearing may be only a few minutes or last a few hours depending on the arguments presented by the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Sentencing may occur immediately after trial; however, on more serious misdemeanors and felonies, it is usually set for another date so the person can be evaluated by an agency who will prepare a “presentence report” with recommendations as to an appropriate sentence based on a number of factors such as criminal history, likelihood of reoffending, etc.

At the time of sentencing, the defense attorney will advocate on your behalf for an appropriate and reasonable sentence under the circumstances and the prosecutor may argue for the maximum fines and/or punishment. You may also speak at the hearing, but you are not required to do so.  The prescribed sentence generally takes effect immediately.

 

Possible sentences if you are being charged with a crime

The Utah Court System publishes the following guidelines for sentences based on the level of the level of the felony or misdemeanor you are charged with:

For Felonies

Felony Degree Possible Prison Term Possible Fine
Capital Life in prison, life in prison without parole, or death  
1st Degree Felony Five years to life in prison Up to $10,000
2nd Degree Felony One to 15 years in prison Up to $10,000
3rd Degree Felony Zero to five years in prison Up to $5,000

 

For Misdemeanors

Misdemeanor Class Possible Jail Term Possible Fine
Class A Misdemeanor Up to 1 year in jail Up to $2,500
Class B Misdemeanor Up to 6 months in jail Up to $1,000
Class C Misdemeanor Up to 90 days in jail Up to $750