Criminal Court Process

Understanding the Criminal Court Process

You find out about a criminal case in one of two ways: you are arrested or you learn you are under investigation. A person who has been arrested is a “defendant” in the criminal justice system. Investigations frequently lead to arrests. More information on criminal investigations can be found below. After an arrest, a defendant is entitled to immediate help from a lawyer. In the New York area, many state, federal, and local agencies have the power to arrest people and bring them before the courts. For example, the New York Police Department (NYPD) brings people to state court—in New York City, criminal cases generally begin in New York City Criminal Court, which is open almost around the clock processing new cases. Federal agencies such as the FBI, the Postal Inspectors, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement transport people to federal court after they are arrested.

What Should I do if I Have Been Arrested?

If you or someone you know has been arrested, it is essential that you contact a lawyer immediately. A person who is arrested should not make any statements to the police or other government officials. Even though defendants want to tell their side of the story, right after the arrest is not the time to do it. Police can make all sorts of promises that they are not bound to keep. Usually, when a person speaks to the police or other agency after an arrest, they do themselves far more harm than good.When a relative is arrested, loved ones may often feel that he or she must be at fault or deserved to be arrested. This certainly may be true. However, the person in custody still needs full support from his family and friends. Time spent in jail is a horrible, dangerous experience. It can be a difficult, stressful task to find a person after he has been arrested in New York. New arrests are supposed to be processed within 24 hours, but someone who later turns out to be perfectly innocent can find himself stuck in jail long enough to lose her job and put her children in jeopardy. If someone you love is in jail, no matter how you feel about it, you should make sure they have a lawyer they trust and support them however you can until they are freed.

When someone is arrested, an attorney must appear with that person before the judge. Most courts have attorneys available on call who represent defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own attorney.

What Happens Before the Trial?

Once a defendant is released “on bail” or “on his own recognizance,” one or more court dates are set for preliminary hearings, motion practice, and trial. Most cases are assigned to a particular prosecutor. A lawyer can assist a defendant in speaking with the prosecutor to work out an agreement known as a plea agreement. In a plea agreement, the defendant agrees to “plead guilty” (i.e., swear on record that he committed some crime). In return, the prosecution may reduce the charges or agree to a lower sentence. Once a person pleads guilty, it is nearly impossible to “undo” or vacate the guilty plea. Therefore, anyone even considering a guilty plea should consult with a lawyer that he or she trusts before going through with the plea. If no agreement can be worked out, the prosecutor may seek an “indictment,” which is a formal charge brought in more serious cases, and the lawyer and client may decide to go to trial.

If the defendant chooses not to accept a guilty plea, in most cases, his or her lawyer will defend the case in court by filing motions and seeking “discovery” (i.e., information that the prosecutor knows about the case). Motions can request dismissal of the case, exclusion of certain evidence, and various other sorts of relief. Discovery in a criminal case is very limited. Usually, the prosecution will only hand over things taken from the defendant and some other documents, such as laboratory tests. The most important documents (i.e., police reports, witness statements, etc.) are generally not handed over until just before trial. However, clients should keep in mind that they have a constitutional right to materially exculpatory evidence in time for its effective use at trial.

What Happens During the Trial of a Criminal Case?

The trial is the heart and soul of a criminal case. If you are innocent, you can win at trial and if you can win at trial, there is no reason to plead guilty. At the trial the prosecutor — “the People” in state cases, “the government” in federal cases — must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty. You are usually entitled to a jury of your peers to rule on questions of fact. The judge decides questions of law. The prosecution presents witnesses, who are vigorously investigated and cross-examined by the defense. The defense may also present witnesses. The burden of proof is always on the prosecution. You do not have to prove anything and you do not have to testify. However, you have an absolute right to testify on your own behalf. At the end of the trial, the jury returns a verdict. If the verdict is “not guilty,” the case is dismissed and you go home. If the verdict is guilty, you are sentenced by the judge based on the sentences applicable to the crime of conviction.

What Will the Sentence be if I am Convicted?

If the defendant is convicted at the trial, the case is set for sentencing. Sentencing in state court is different from sentencing in federal court. In New York state courts, judges typically have a range of sentences they can impose, including fines, imprisonment, or community service, among other things. Frequently, prosecutors agree to a sentence in plea negotiations, and that agreement is binding on the court. Unless the defendant violates the plea agreement (by fleeing or committing another crime, for example), he will be sentenced according to the agreement.

In federal courts, judges until 2005 were required to follow the United States Sentencing Guidelines, a rigid set of rules specifying set sentences in most circumstances. However, the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Booker that these mandatory guidelines were unconstitutional. Therefore, guidelines are now merely advisory, though they still influence judges in federal cases. Moreover, in federal cases in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, plea agreements almost always permit the judge to determine the sentence. Although the guideline range may be clear, a defendant never knows what the actual sentence will be until the day of sentencing. As a result, sentencing advocacy is essential in federal court: if a defendant pleads guilty, his lawyer must make a detailed presentation to the court based on both facts and law about why the sentence should be lower than the guidelines. For developments in federal sentencing, please check our News page from time to time.

What Can I do if I Have Already Been Convicted?

Once a defendant is convicted and sentenced, they may appeal either the conviction or the sentence. Appeals are hard to win—but some trials contain errors that can lead to reversal. In order to appeal, you must file a “Notice of Appeal” as soon as your case ends in the lower court. Make sure to ask your lawyer about this. Even if a person loses on “direct appeal,” he may still pursue his case through “habeas corpus,” which is available both in state and federal court. Post-conviction relief, as it is known, is even more rarely granted—but it gives a sliver of hope to those who are wrongly convicted and lose on appeal. Finally, the consequences of a felony or even misdemeanor record can be severe, even after the prison sentence is served. A person can be denied employment, deported, or in some states lose the right to vote as a result of a criminal conviction. Some of these disabilities can be avoided in certain circumstances.

What Should I do Next?

If you are charged with a crime or under investigation, please contact us for more information on how we might be able to help. Please do not include any details of the crime in your e-mail.

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