How Do Felony Cases Work in Superior Court?
A felony offense is any crime that carries a range of sentence in the Arizona Department of Corrections. There are six classes of felonies in Arizona that range from a Class 1 (most serious) through Class 6 (least serious). When you are charged with a felony offense in Arizona, your case will be heard in the Superior Court of your county. In Phoenix, that is the Maricopa County Superior Court.
Regional Court Center/Early Disposition Court: Some minor felony cases do not fully enter the superior courts. They stay in hybrid courts called Early Disposition Court (EDC). In Maricopa County, they also have the Regional Court Center (RCC). In EDC and RCC, cases are put on the fast track. A defendant is usually given a few pages of police reports, a plea, and 30 days to resolve the case. If a defendant rejects the EDC or RCC plea, their case is formally moved to the superior court.
Indictment via the Grand Jury: Most felony cases are charged via indictment. An indictment is a formal document outlining the charges against a defendant. The indictment is signed by a Grand Jury. To obtain formal charges, prosecutors go in front of the Grand Jury in secret to present their case. They usually bring one witness who testifies about the facts of the case to the Grand Jury. After the Grand Jury hears the witness testimony, they determine whether there is probable cause to sign the indictment and file formal charges. Grand juries sign indictments more than 95% of the time. Sadly, the Grand Jury process is little more than a formality in Arizona.
Initial Appearance: When you are arrested for a felony offense in Arizona, you must appear before a judge within 24 hours to set your release conditions (bond, confinement, release to pretrial services, etc.). Initial Appearance Court is located at the 4th Avenue Jail in Maricopa County. They hold initial appearance hearings every three (3) hours for in-custody detainees. If you are issued a summons (sent a letter in the email telling you to come to court), then your initial appearance will simply be held in the Superior Court on the date and time listed on your summons. Call us if you receive this letter.
At an initial appearance, a judge will consider whether to release you on your own recognizance (release with no supervision), release you to pretrial services, set a bond, or hold you non-bondable. In determining your release conditions, the judge will consider: the nature of the charges, ties to the community, criminal history, employment, etc.
Arraignment: An arraignment occurs after a finding of probable cause. It is considered the formal beginning of a felony case. At the arraignment, a defendant enters plea(s) of not guilty, is assigned a case management judge, and obtains their next court dates. A defendant only gives their name and date of birth at an arraignment. It is a very quick hearing.
Initial Pretrial Conference: Approximately forty-five days after an arraignment is a defendant’s Initial Pretrial Conference (IPTC). The IPTC is a status conference where the judge wants to know the status of discovery (evidence disclosed by the State), whether a plea has been extended, and when the plea expires. The Court will also schedule a trial date at that time. If the State has failed or refused to provide evidence by the IPTC, the IPTC judge will instruct them to disclose that evidence asap.
Comprehensive Pretrial Conference: A Comprehensive Pretrial Conference (CPTC) is a hearing scheduled approximately forty-five days before trial. The State and Defense filed a joint pretrial conference statement which tells the judge what to expect at trial. The CPTC statement includes: 1) number of jurors needed for trial; 2) number of witnesses; 3) length of trial; 4) how many pretrial interviews have been conducted; and 5) whether each party expects to file substantive motions.
Settlement Conference: A settlement conference is a hearing scheduled to resolve a case before trial. These hearings assist in negotiating plea agreements. Settlement conferences are informal hearings before a judge where parties can speak openly about their case. Besides negotiations, the judge will discuss the range of sentence after trial, benefits of a plea, weaknesses in the State’s case, and the weight of the evidence. Settlement conferences help defendants make informed decisions about their case. The decision to go to trial or take a plea can be overwhelming. Settlement conferences can make that decision a little easier.
Change of Plea Hearing: If a defendant decides to accept a plea agreement, there must be a change of plea hearing. This is where a defendant changes his plea from not guilty to guilty. Most defendants plea to lesser charges. For example, a defendant charged with Kidnapping, a class 2 felony with a range of 3-12.5 years in prison, might take a plea to Unlawful Imprisonment, a class 6 felony with a range of 4 months – 2 years in prison.
During a change of plea hearing, the judge wants to make sure the defendant’s decision to take a plea is voluntary. A judge will ask the defendant if they understand the plea, their rights, and if they have any questions. Once a judge accepts a plea agreement, it is very difficult for a defendant to get out of a plea agreement. Buyer’s remorse is not a sufficient reason to withdraw from a plea.
Sentencing: A sentencing hearing takes place 30 days after a change of plea hearing or a conviction at trial. Sentencing is where the judge imposes the consequences of a plea or conviction. The range of sentence depends on the plea or conviction. If a defendant takes a plea with a range of 1 to 3 years, the judge can sentence the defendant to any amount of time within that range. However, a judge could not impose less than 1 or more than 3 years without rejecting that plea agreement. Judges usually abide by the terms of the plea and sentence within the range.
Having the right attorney at sentencing is essential. An experienced attorney will file a sentencing memorandum before the hearing. A sentencing memorandum will outline mitigation (good things about a person that cry out for leniency and mercy from the court). Sentencing memos will usually have character letters from friends and family attached. Presenting mitigation to a judge at the time of sentencing is essential to obtain a fair sentence.
Final Trial Management Conference: The Final Trial Management Conference (FTMC) is set one week before jury trial. At an FTMC, a judge wants to know if the parties are ready to proceed to trial or if a continuance is needed.