29 Apr What to Expect in Court- Criminal
You have a case pending. You have no idea how to act or who is going to be in Court. And you have no idea how long it is going to take. Welcome to the first part of a continuing series aimed at demystifying the courtroom experience in Missouri. This part focuses on criminal cases.
Part I: The Players
There are a lot of people involved in a single criminal case. Here is a brief description of each, including who they are and how they will be involved in your case
The Judge- A Judge is a practicing attorney elected to the bench to serve for a period of time. Their responsibilities include docket management and deciding procedural issues such as setting bail/bond, hearing and deciding upon issues such as search and seizure, and acting as a “referee” of sorts in a jury trial, guaranteeing that the attorneys are following the proper rules of evidence.
The Clerk- Sometimes thought of as the Judge’s assistant, the clerk facilitates the Judge’s job by keeping track of cases, accepting and filing paperwork, recording proceedings when necessary, and scheduling cases. A clerk is not an attorney.
The Bailiff- He or she is considered law enforcement and in many smaller communities is a deputy loaned from the Sheriff’s Department. The Bailiff is responsible for maintaining order and safety in the courtroom.
The Prosecutor- Sometimes elected but sometimes a hired employee of the elected official, the Prosecutor is a practicing Attorney tasked with prosecuting crimes. They typically work close with law enforcement. Prosecutors decide what offers to give in plea negotiations, and have to conduct trials when a Defendant cannot come to an agreement.
Probation & Parole Officer- These are not always in Court, but Probation and Parole occasionally make an appearance to testify at a Probation Revocation Hearing. They are also heavily involved in preparing sentencing recommendations on more serious offenses and may be present in Court to submit their findings to the Judge.
Your Attorney- Your Attorney’s job is to advocate in your defense. We work for the best possible outcome in your case, which varies depending upon the crime allegedly committed and the evidence available. He or she is present at each and every Court date, and will be trying your case at trial in the event you are unable to come to an agreement.
Part II: Courtroom Etiquette
The most important thing for you to remember as a Defendant in Court is that you should let your Attorney talk for you! Never engage law enforcement, prosecutors, witnesses, or Judges on your own. Your Attorney is experienced and specifically trained to say “the right things” at “the right time”. There is no need for you to risk yourself or your freedom by opening up on your own. Let your Attorney do their job.
If you are out on bail and present for a simple arraignment or pretrial matter, you will sit on the benches in the audience area of the Courtroom. It is unlikely that your Attorney will be sitting with you. Instead, we sit in the juror’s box or at conference tables facing the Judge. When your name is called, you will approach that area and stand next to your Attorney. If you are in Court for a trial or hearing, you will be sitting at the conference tables facing the Judge alongside your Attorney.
Dockets are called in different ways. Some Judges call the dockets alphabetically. Some call them by the type of cases. That is to say, anything being continued is called first and moved out of the way, leaving the longer issues for last.
You might not understand everything that the Attorneys speak to the Judge about. The best way of handling that situation is to wait until the conversation is over. Once your appointment is wrapped up, your Attorney should be happy to walk outside to a private area to recap what just happened and what is next for your case.
Part III: How a Case Progresses
A criminal case can start one of two ways: with an arrest or with an indictment. If there is an arrest, you will be given your first court date for an “arraignment”. This is a procedural date where you will enter a not guilty plea, tell the Judge what your plans are for securing an attorney, and have your first shot at a bail/bond reduction.
If you have a felony, your next court date will be a “preliminary hearing”. This hearing is a probable cause hearing where the Judge decides, based upon brief evidence, whether it is more likely or not that a crime was committed. Once it is over, the case is then “bound up” to Circuit Court. It is a scale of 51% likelihood, so it takes very little for probable cause to be established. Some people waive their hearing in exchange for a favor from the prosecutor, such as a recommendation of lower bond. I consider the preliminary hearing a great opportunity to gather evidence and get witnesses on the record, so I usually only waive if it I foresee some kind of benefit to my client.
Your next court date is a Pretrial Conference (sometimes named different things in different jurisdictions). In the interim, you will be expected to get an Attorney. He or she will file an Entry into the Court record, a request for discovery, and will begin investigating your case. There might be quite a few pretrial dates as the attorneys work through gathering evidence, evaluating the strengths of the case, and negotiating back and forth with the prosecution. If ultimately an agreement isn’t possible, then a trial date will be set.
Knowledge is power. The better you understand the people and processes involved in your case, the less frustrated and more helpful you will be to your own case.