How Criminal Court Works

shutterstock_262035641

Here are some things to keep in mind about criminal defense cases in Arizona. First, virtually every criminal case starts with a not guilty arraignment. From there the case is set to a number of pretrial conferences. Over the course of weeks or months, defendants in Arizona are given some to consider a plea agreement. If the person wants to enter a plea, they can do so and the case will be set to sentencing. If the person rejects the plea, the case will be set to trial.

Below, you will find some general information on how the felony process works in Arizona.  Bear in mind that every case is different.  If you are charged with a felony, you may be facing years in prison.  As such, please feel free to come to our office to speak with us about your case.

What Happens After the Arrest

If you get arrested, the prosecutor will make the decision whether or not charges will be filed.  Typically the prosecution has two days from the initial appearance in court to file charges.  Keep in mind that the time limit doesn’t include holidays, weekends, or the day that the first court appearance happened.

At the initial appearance, a judge will set the release conditions.  Some people are released OR (own recognizance) PTS (pretrial services—like probation) or bond.  After the release conditions are set, the “Complaint” must be filed within 48 hours of the initial appearance.  Sometimes this “complaint” is just a holding complaint, designed to buy the prosecution more time before they go to the grand jury.

There are general release conditions that are imposed on people who are not in custody.  Those conditions require that you not violate the law, stay in Arizona and remain in contact with your attorney.  You will be advised that the trial can go on without you if you don’t go to court when ordered.

Time Limits

shutterstock_63304795If you are in custody, the government has 10 days to have a probable cause hearing.  If you are out of custody, the government has 20 days to have the hearing.  They can either have that hearing by sending the case to the grand jury, or having a preliminary hearing.  Generally speaking, in Maricopa county, almost all cases are sent to the grand jury for probable cause determinations.

In the time between the initial appearance and the probable cause determination, defendants usually have a status conference.  These status conferences are somewhat informal affairs designed to let the prosecutor and the defense attorney negotiate a plea and examine evidence.  These conferences are not a matter of right.  The prosecutor can decide whether or not a plea offer is made.

If you have a status conference, you may have a court document that lists two dates.  The first date the (SC) is the status conference.   The second date (PH) is the preliminary hearing.  If the SC date was postponed, the PH date will be as well.

Motions to Continue

If your attorney wants more time to negotiate with the government, they can file a continuance.  This continuance will usually give the parties a couple of weeks to look over evidence and speak with the prosecutors.  If the defense team is filing the request for more time, however, keep in mind that the time limit to have the probable cause hearing will be extended as well.

Let’s say that the probable cause hearing doesn’t happen.  In that case, the matter may be “scratched.”  The government usually has seven years to file charges against people. Sometimes they will scratch cases to investigate further.  Other times, they scratch the charges and have no intent to ever bring the charges back.  In either case, it is probably a good idea to speak with a criminal defense attorney to discuss your case so you can understand whether or not it is likely that the charges will come back.

If you take a plea agreement at the status conference, your case will be set for sentencing in usually 2 to 4 weeks.  Your attorney will also have you sign a “Straight Waiver” form.  This form allows the case to be set for sentencing without needing to send the case to the grand jury.  See below for the sentencing section to see how sentencing works in Arizona.

Say that you don’t negotiate and accept a plea agreement at the status conference.  As long as you don’t sign the straight waiver form, your case will probably be heard by the grand jury.  This hearing is conducted secretly and you will typically not attend.  If the grand jury finds that it is more probable than not that you committed a crime, then they will return a “True Bill” and your case will be set for arraignment.

The Arraignment

shutterstock_255647695At the arraignment, the charges will be written down on a form, handed to you, and you will typically enter a plea of not guilty.  At that point, the case will be set to another hearing called an initial pretrial conference.  If your release conditions have not been set for some reason, the judge can order you to pay a bond, release you “OR” or have you submit to pretrial services monitoring.

Say that the evidence that was submitted to the grand jury was incorrect.  A defense attorney can file a motion contesting the grand jury’s determination 25 days after the arraignment or after the transcript of the hearing was filed (whichever is later.)  This motion is an excellent way to contest the charges and put you in a position where the entire case could be dismissed.  If you want to change your release conditions after the initial appearance, the only way to do that is to file a written motion to modify.  If you are in court and want to talk to the judge about your release conditions, the judge will not listen to you if you didn’t file a motion in writing.

Sometimes people with public defenders attempt to speak with the judge about their case or their bond conditions. In general,  this is a bad idea.  Sometimes people don’t like the assigned judge.  Keep in mind that a request for a change of judge must be made within 10 days of that judge taking the case.  After arraignment, the state typically has 30 days to give the defense team additional evidence.

shutterstock_140867215Setting the Case to Trial:

Criminal cases in Arizona must go to trial within 180 days of arraignment. Cases that are designated “complex” must be tried within 270 days.  Defense attorneys can file for motions to extend these timelines.  Prosecutors also have the ability to ask for more time.

Once the case is set to trial, there typically are three or four conference style hearings.  At these hearings, the judge wants to make sure that the parties are preparing, negotiating and sharing the necessary evidence.  These hearings are usually very brief and there is nothing that the defendant will have to say or do.

However, if the case is set to trial and the parties can’t agree on a plea agreement, you may want to request a “Settlement Conference.”  These conferences allow you to directly talk to the prosecutor and a judge.  They can be incredibly important tools to put pressure on the prosecutor to improve your plea.

Criminal felony trials usually last between one and two weeks for more simple matters.  Homicides and more complex matters can take months.  All defendants charged with felonies are entitled to a trial by jury.

Things to Think About:

In general, the criminal court process is intimidating, scary and confusing.  Defendants may feel completely “in the dark” as they appear for status conferences and pretrial hearings.  It is very important for you to have a good working relationship with your attorney so you know exactly what is going on in your case and what to expect.  For example, if you take a plea offer that requires prison time and you are out of custody, it is very likely that you will be taken to jail the day you enter the plea.  If you have a probation violation and you sign a plea agreement for a new case, that plea agreement will automatically violate your existing probation and you can be sentenced to additional time for the probation matter.  Also, you need to know when plea offers expire, because once the plea is gone, it may never come back.

Remember that you control the decisions that you make.  You can elect to go to trail.  You decide whether or not to take a plea agreement.  Nobody can force you to do something that you don’t want to do.  Your life is in your own hands.

The best piece of advice is to learn as much as you can about your case.  Know the evidence against you, learn about what possible defenses you have and protect yourself with information.

The First Court Appearance Is Not Trial

shutterstock_184839455Our clients call us concerned that the first appearance is trial.  They worry that they must get witnesses together and start to make major decisions about their case.  In the vast majority of the criminal cases we handle our clients are not put on the spot.  Trial could be months away.  As stated above, the first court appearance is usually just a formality.

The first court appearance is simply an opportunity to enter a plea of not guilty.  From that point, the judge will likely set some type of status conference in 30 days.  You don’t have to worry about the prosecutor asking you many questions about your case.  They simply don’t have the time to think about your case at this stage of the process.

So keep in mind that the first appearance is usually a brief matter that is designed to allow the court to set another date.

We Can Help Explain Your First Court Date

When you hire a criminal defense attorney to represent you in court, bear in mind that that attorney speaks for you.  It’s critical to get the right advocate working for you today.  Give us a call and let us help you with your case right now.