Being arrested and appearing in criminal court on a criminal charge in Arizona is a difficult and unpleasant experience. For most people who never imagined they would be accused of a crime, it can be very frightening. And even if you’ve been in trouble before, criminal court proceedings are never really something you get used to. It’s the state against you.
Your reputation and freedom are on the line when facing criminal charges.
It is important to understand the legal process and to have a knowledgeable partner, fighting for you, and helping you through this challenging time. A good attorney is that partner for you; a friend to help you understand the process and all of the legal jargon, and an advocate for your freedom.
This is your first time in front of the judge. At your initial appearance you will be informed of the charges against you. It is also at this appearance that the judge will inform you of some of your basic rights including your right to an attorney.
At the arraignment the judge will consider your release if you have been in custody since your arrest. Finally, the judge will schedule your next court date at this time.
If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you will be arraigned (formally charged) at the initial appearance and given the opportunity to enter a plea (guilty, not guilty). However, if you are charged with a felony, you will not be arraigned until after a preliminary hearing has been held.
Release Pending Trial
No one wants to wait in jail for their court dates. However, sometimes the judge will determine this is in the best interest of all parties. A judge will look at several things when determining if you should be released pending trial including:
- Circumstances of the crime
- Your criminal history
- Your stability in the community (do you have a home, family, job)
- Safety of you, any alleged victims, or the community
What the judge is trying to determine when looking at these things is whether or not you are a flight risk. A flight risk is someone who the judge can’t trust to show up for future court dates. If the judge feels that you will return and not be a safety risk in the meantime, she may grant your release.
Own Recognizance (O.R.)
If you are released and do not have to give any money to the court, you are being released on your ‘own recognizance”. This simply means that the court trusts that you will return and releases you on that promise.
The court may decide that you can be released but only after a sum of money is put up along with your promise to return. A bond is this money. Once the bond amount is set it can typically be paid in cash, collateral, or with the help of a bail bondsman.
An experienced attorney can be successful in getting the court to reduce your bond amount.
Along with requiring your promise to return or money (in the case of a bond), the judge may also impose certain restrictions on your release. For example, you may be required to wear an ankle bracelet or be drug tested. Your failure to comply with these conditions could result in your re-arrest.
If you are charged with a felony, you have the right to a probable cause hearing. In the state of Arizona you can waive this right (you can elect not to have the probable cause hearing). When deciding whether or not a waiver is in your best interest, a knowledgeable attorney is vital.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to establish to the court that there is sufficient probable cause to move your case to trial. The prosecution will have the burden of proving to the court that there is probable cause.
It is important to understand that at the preliminary hearing, the prosecution does not have to prove that you committed the crime, only that there is sufficient reason to believe that you did.
In some ways the preliminary hearing resembles a smaller version of a trial, with each side taking turns arguing their case. The difference is that the outcome will either be the setting of a trial date or the dismissing of your case.
A grand jury hearing has the same purpose as the preliminary hearing. In a grand jury proceeding the decision to send your case to trial will be decided by a panel of 9 rather than a single judge. These proceedings, unlike the preliminary hearing, are held in private with only the court officers, the grand jury panel, and you present.
Your attorney can also be present for the grand jury proceedings.
**Once it has been determined that sufficient probable cause exists to send your felony case to trial, you will be arraigned. This is where you will enter your plea of not guilty and a trial date may be set**
The prosecution wants to get a conviction or guilty plea in your case. In the interest of getting what they want they will offer you a plea deal. This simply means that they will do things like lower the charges or offer to make a more lenient sentencing recommendation to the judge, in exchange for a guilty plea from you.
The majority of criminal cases end in a plea bargain.
Sometimes it is in your best interest to take a plea agreement and not risk a conviction. In other situations your attorney may think you have a good chance at trial. Only an experienced attorney can help you make this decision.
If and when your case finally makes it to trial, it will follow a set routine. Trials are known as an “adversarial process” where one side argues against the other, each trying to prove their case. It is the responsibility of the prosecution to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you committed the crime you are charged with.
Your attorney must show the court that doubt exists as to your guilt.
Your case will go through three distinct stages: opening statements, presentation of evidence, and closing arguments. In each of these stages, the defense and prosecution will take turns until each feels satisfied that they have said all that needs to be said.
In the case of a jury trial, the judge will instruct the jury after closing arguments and the jury will retire to deliberate. If the jury comes back with a “not guilty” verdict, your time in the criminal justice system will have come to an end. If, however, they decide you are guilty of the crime, the judge will set a sentencing date.