Understanding the entire criminal court process, from arrest to sentencing, is essential if you want to achieve better outcomes. As a criminal attorney in Miami I believe that knowledge is invaluable as you work through this system, so the information below is intended to walk you through the process in a few basic steps. The information applies to Florida criminal cases but not all counties use Sounding or Pretrial Hearings.
Most criminal court processes begin with a call to the police. This call leads to an investigation by the responding officers, or in some cases, a grand jury investigation.
Once law enforcement believes they have enough evidence to file criminal charges, you are arrested and taken into custody, or else you are provided with a citation or letter to appear in court on a specific date. Although the police will arrest you for what they think the charges support, the State Attorney's Office makes the ultimate decision about what charges you will face in court.
Your first appearance in court involves entering a plea: “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest.” In felony cases, if the judge decides there is enough evidence to keep the case in the system, you will be arraigned in the trial court approximately two weeks after the preliminary hearing.
In misdemeanor cases, pretrial hearings are then set. These are dates to come back to court for various issues and for possible settlement. If the case is not settled or dismissed, the next step is a trial. In felony cases, a preliminary hearing will be set, which is a hearing where the Judge listens to basic evidence of the case from the prosecution, and determines whether or not the case should still be in the court system.
This is typically the first opportunity for the defense to cross examine the prosecution witnesses, which is why it should be handled by an experienced lawyer who understands the entire process.
Sounding refers to additional court dates which determine if both sides are ready for trial, and to discuss any issues in the case, including motions filed by either party. The purpose is for the judge to monitor the status of the case to ensure it's not taking longer than usual, and to hasten possible settlement. After Sounding, if both sides say they are ready for trial, trial is set in about 10 days.
In misdemeanor cases, you have a right to go to trial within 30 or 45 days of your initial arraignment, depending on whether you were in custody at your initial arraignment. This can be a jury trial or a court trial if both sides agree to waive their right to a jury trial. In felony cases, you have a right to go to trial within 60 days of your second arraignment, again either a jury or court trial.
Your trial is where an effective attorney will mount a full-throated defense of his client, and attempt to reduce the charges and negotiate better outcomes.
After a settlement or a guilty verdict, the defendant is sentenced. Misdemeanors carry up to one year in jail, while felonies carry the potential for custody greater than one year. A court can also sentence the defendant to probation.
A defendant always has the right to appeal a case or ruling, and in some instances, to request that the court “expunge” or remove the conviction from the person’s record (see the “Expungements” page).
Understand Your Rights
- Bail – You have an absolute right to bail. All criminal charges have a corresponding dollar figure which, if posted with a bail bondsman or to the court, allows you to remain free during the proceedings. Many times, however, a good criminal defense attorney can get a person released on their own recognizance. This depends heavily on the charges, a person's past, and other factors.
- Discovery – You have an absolute right to discovery. Discovery includes the police reports, backgrounds of witnesses, police recordings and 911 tapes, prior complaints against witnesses or the police, photographs, videos – anything that points to your guilt or innocence, and should be obtained by your Miami-Dade attorney to build your defense.
- Common Motions – Good attorneys are familiar with a number of motions that may be used to get charges reduced or dismissed.