Crimes are generally classified as felonies or misdemeanors. Generally, felonies
are punished by a sentence of one year or more in prison. Misdemeanors are generally
punished by one year or less in a county jail. Probation is also a possibility.
Under probation, a person would not serve any time in jail or prison.
The following definitions are provided to explain the criminal justice process:
ARREST AND BOOKING
This is when a police officer takes you into custody and takes you to jail. The
process of actually putting you in jail is called booking.
INITIAL APPEARANCE (COMMONLY REFERRED TO AS "ARRAIGNMENT")
If you are charged with a crime, this will be the first time you will go before
a judge. Your legal rights will be described for you, and a bond will be set for
you which you must arrange to pay before you may be released from jail. In some
cases, this bond may be an “Own-Recognizance Bond” (“O.R. Bond”) which requires
no payment of money to a bondsman. You also will be told the next time you are to
appear in court.
PRELIMINARY HEARING CONFERENCE
This hearing may also be called a pre-preliminary hearing or an announcement docket.
Generally, these hearings are a time for your attorney and the prosecutor to discuss
your case. The prosecutor will make a plea bargain offer which you and your attorney
will discuss. If you decide to accept the offer, you would waive or give up your
right to a trial and set your case for a date for you to plead guilty. If you do
not accept the plea offer, you will have your case set for a preliminary hearing.
If you are charged with a felony you have a right to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary
hearing is a court hearing where witnesses testify and the Judge decides whether
there is enough evidence against you to order you to have a trial. If the court
believes there is enough evidence to believe a crime was committed and enough evidence
to believe you committed the crime (often, this is called “probable cause”), the
court will “bind you over” for trial. If the court does not believe there is enough
evidence, the case will be dismissed. The prosecutor is not required to present
all of their witnesses or all of the evidence they have collected. They are only
required to present enough evidence to meet the “probable cause” standard.
JURY CALL DOCKET
This is a hearing where you and your attorney meet with the Judge and the prosecutor
to announce that you want a trial or to plead guilty.
PLEA OR DISPOSITION DOCKET
At this hearing, you will appear with your attorney and plead guilty or “no contest”
to a Judge. At this hearing, the court will announce your punishment based on your
plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor. If the Judge thinks the punishment is
not harsh enough, you will be allowed to withdraw your plea of guilty and have a
If you do not have a plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor, you may still wish
to enter a plea of guilty and allow the judge to determine what your sentence will
be. This type of plea is often called a “blind plea.” In this situation, you do
not know the punishment the judge will give you, and you are throwing yourself on
the mercy of the court. If you do not like the punishment the court decides is appropriate
for you, you do not have the right to withdraw your plea and have your case set
This is where a jury decides whether you are guilty of the crime with which you
have been charged. The prosecutor must prove your guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”
to the jury or the Judge in order for you to be convicted of a crime.
NON-JURY BENCH TRIAL
This is a trial where a jury is waived and the Judge alone decides whether you are
guilty or not guilty of the crime with which you have been charged. In most cases
both sides must agree to waive a jury.
You are not convicted of a crime until you are found guilty and punished for the
crime. With a deferred sentence, the Judge finds you guilty of the crime but post
pones, delays or defers sentencing until a later date (from one day to five years).
If you do everything the court orders you to do, the court will dismiss your case
and the charge will not appear on your record. You may be ordered to pay all court
costs and fees, see a probation officer, go to treatment and make sure you do not
break the law again. If you do not successfully complete the deferred sentence requirements
or if you are charged with committing a “new” crime, the court may sentence you
to jail or prison.
You are convicted of a crime but are on probation for all or part of the sentence;
it is suspended so you do not have to go to prison for that amount of time, as long
as you satisfy the conditions of probation. The probation may be “supervised” or
“unsupervised”. If it is “supervised”, you must regularly report to a probation
officer. If it is “unsupervised”, you simply must obey the rules of probation and
not break the law. If you are unsuccessful, however, you may be sentenced to spend
the entire sentence in jail or prison.
A bench warrant is an order by the court to have you arrested because you failed
to appear in court when the court told you to appear.