Monday, February 14, 2011

Court Appearance: What happens next?

Many of my clients ask me: what happens at the next Court date? Others ask me how long before the jury trial will occur, or when does sentencing take place. The best way to answer these questions is to explain the steps in the Criminal Justice system, beginning with the initial charges or police contact and ending with sentencing and postconviction relief.

In Colorado, there are three common ways in which a criminal case may begin in County and District Court: by summons and complaint, warrantless arrest and complaint, and arrest warrant followed by complaint. See C.R.S. 16-2-104, 16-5-101; C.R.C.P. 3, 4, 4.1, 4.2. In District Court, there is also the method of Grand Jury indictment, although in state Court this does not occur frequently.

The typical method of initiating a County Court criminal case is by summons and complaint. A peace officer may issue a summons and complaint for a misdemeanor or petty offense if the officer has probable cause to believe the person committed the offense. C.R.S. 16-2-104. For traffic violations, many times the police officer issues the summons and complaint to the offender, listing the charged offense and the date for court. For misdemeanors such as harassment, 3rd Degree Assault, and criminal mischief, the police officer may develop probable cause at the crime scene and issue the offender a summons and complaint. Again, the summons will state the applicable offense with a court date.

If the officer feels that an arrest is necessary, the officer may arrest the person based on probable cause that the offender committed the offense, and the offender shall be taken without unnecessary delay before the nearest available county judge. C.R.S. 16-2-112, 16-3-102. For felony offenses, the police officer typically arrests the person rather than issuing a summons to appear in Court.

If the officer has probable cause to arrest the person, but is unable to immediately arrest the individual, the officer can apply for an arrest warrant for the person. In this scenario the officer prepares an affidavit for warrant arrest, and if the Court finds there is probable cause for the arrest, an arrest warrant will issue. In this scenario the charge may be filed simultaneously with the request for arrest warrant, or the District Attorney may file charges after he has appeared before the Court. See C.R.S. 16-3-108.

At the first appearance in Court, the Judge will advise the defendant of his rights and possible penalties. In Colorado, for misdemeanor, traffic offenses, and petty offenses the defendant will have an opportunity to speak with a Deputy District Attorney to determine if the defendant wishes to accept a plea offer in exchange for a guilty plea. Keep in mind that the legal system in America is an adversarial system, which means that there are two different sides to the process: the prosecutor and the defendant. The prosecutor's responsibility is to protect the community and serve the victims in the case. The prosecutor does not have an obligation to assist and serve the best interests of the defendant. The defendant can and should speak with an attorney before choosing to accept a plea agreement. The defendant can speak with and retain an attorney prior to this first court appearance, or ask for additional time to seek the assistance of counsel. Judges typically ensure the defendant's right to counsel by granting continuances (within reason) of 2-4 weeks. The accused also has the right to court appointed counsel if he qualifies for the public defender's services.

In District Court, under some circumstances the Defendant may be entitled to a Preliminary Hearing. A Preliminary Hearing is a hearing to determine if there is probable cause for the felony charges filed against the accused. A defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing if he is accused of a class one, two, or three felony, or if accused of a class four, five, or six felony AND the defendant is in custody at the time of the hearing. C.R.S. 16-5-301. A defendant is also entitled to a preliminary hearing for any felony offense that requires mandatory incarceration if convicted of the crime (such as the Class six felony Violation of Bail Bond Conditions or the Class Four Felony 2nd Degree Assault).

The defendant may choose to plead not guilty and schedule a trial at any time. In District Court, a person typically pleads not guilty at the time of Arraignment (depending on the case about 2-4 months after the first appearance in court). A number of factors weigh into the question of whether to plead not guilty and have a trial. In County and District Court, once a defendant pleads not guilty the Court must hold the trial within six months. Also known as the Right to a Speedy Trial, the Court must dismiss the charges against the defendant with prejudice if the trial is not held within this time.

Between the not guilty plea and trial, the parties often conduct motion hearings in preparation for trial. A motion hearing is held to determine the admissibility of certain types of evidence, such as the statements to a law enforcement officer or evidence obtained by a police officer initiated search.

At trial, the accused can choose to either have a trial by jury or to the Court. In the overwhelming majority of cases in Colorado, the defendant chooses a jury trial, but in unique situations the defendant may want to have the trial to the Court. A defendant is entitled to six jurors in County Court, and in District Court, the defendant has twelve. Many judges also select alternate jurors in the off-chance that one of the jurors is unable to finish his jury service.

Upon an acquittal at trial the charge(s) against the defendant are dismissed. If the jury or court finds the defendant guilty of any one or multiple offenses, the judge will sentence the defendant for each guilty offense. For felony offenses, the judge may sentence the offender to a term of probation (and jail is possible as a condition of probation), or to serve in work-release type of setting (called Community Corrections), or to a period of incarceration in the Department of Corrections followed by parole. For misdemeanor and traffic offenses, the Court may sentence the offender to jail, probation (and possibly jail as a condition of probation), work-release, or other alternate forms of incarceration (such as electronic home monitoring, day-reporting, and work-enders).

Following the sentencing hearing, the Defendant can file a motion for new trial, or seek relief by appellate review in the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court. When seeking appellate review, it is extremely important that all deadlines are adhered to. If these procedures are not followed there is the likelihood that the appellate courts will forgo reviewing the claims.

The Criminal Justice system can be a labyrinth of court dates, appearances, procedures, and rules. Step by step, attorneys assist defendants through the process, making sure their rights are protected and their voices heard. There are countless decisions that can make or break a case, and the attorney should guide the accused to the best possible outcome and resolution.

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