Thursday, September 8, 2011

Path of a Criminal Case

It is a complex legal system, especially in New York State. I hope to shed some light on how a case moves from arrest to trial.

1) Someone calls the police. This is probably the most important event. A single individual possesses the power to send hundreds of years of legal action in motion with just a phone call. The call usually consists of a description of the crime and a description of the suspect.

2) The police investigate. The police speak to the 911 caller, the victim, and any other eyewitnesses. They also begin to gather evidence related to the crime. Based on all this information, they attempt to arrest the individual responsible.

3) The arrest. The police arrest a suspect based on probable cause. This means that there is sufficient evidence to believe the suspect committed the crime. After the arrest, the police attempt to obtain a statement from the suspect and have the witnesses identify the suspect in a line-up or some other identification proceeding.

4) The police file charges. This begins the formal court proceedings and the defendant is brought in front of a judge and arraigned on a felony complaint based on the charges filed by the police. This is usually the first time the district attorney's office becomes involved in the proceedings.

5) The felony hearing. The district attorney's office must put witnesses on the stand to show the court credible evidence that the suspect committed the crime. This usually consists of the witnesses to the crime testifying in open court and identifying the defendant as the person who committed it. It is a procedural safeguard to ensure a person does not remain in jail for more than a few days without the court seeing some evidence against them.

6) Grand jury. If the court decides there is enough evidence to move forward, the case is held for action of the grand jury. This means the district attorney's office is required to present evidence to a grand jury. The grand jury is a secret proceeding and the grand jurors decide what crimes the defendant should be charged with based on advice from the district attorney's office. This usually varies widely from the initial crimes the police arrest the defendant on. The grand jury has the power to dismiss a case, ask for more evidence, or vote on any charge not submitted to them. Plea negotiations are taking place before the case is presented to a grand jury in an attempt to resolve it prior to an indictment.

7) The superior court arraignment. After a defendant is indicted by a grand jury, he is brought in front of a supreme court judge and arraigned on the criminal charges in the indictment.

8) Pre-trial hearings. The case is set down for pre-trial hearings. These hearings are held in front of a judge who determines whether the police acted appropriately in searching the defendant, obtaining a defendant's statement, or conducting an identification procedure, among other issues.

9) The trial. The case is tried in front of a jury. The prosecutor has the burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all the crimes charged in the indictment. If the jury is satisfied with the evidence, they can find the defendant guilty. If not, they can find the defendant not guilty.

10) The appeal. Every defendant is allowed an appeal for a conviction as a matter of right to the appellate division in New York State. Subsequent appeals to higher courts are discretionary.

A defendant can plead guilty at any stage of the proceeding after a felony hearing is held or waived. There is legal criteria surrounding the plea I will save for another post. Does this help you understand the court system better? What else would you like to know about it?


  1. I know most cases are settled by plea bargain, so how many of your cases would you say actually make it to trial on average?

  2. It varies every year and varies by case. Most of my juvenile cases are resolved by plea, probably about 99%. Last year I tried five felony jury trials and one felony bench (non-jury) trial. This year I've tried one bench trial and no jury trials. I've had two jury trials plea right before jury selection. I have one scheduled for two weeks from now. I'll get specific statistics soon and post them. But on average I would try five cases a year, which is about 5-10% of my caseload.

  3. Seems to me pleading guilty is the dumbest thing a defendant can do unless there is a deal for him