For most people, the workings of the United States Criminal Justice System can seem foreign and sometimes downright confusing. Understanding how our justice system works and how a case might move through the system is something citizens should understand.
Our criminal justice system is based on the presumption of innocence. America does not try people in the court of public opinion. According to the Cornell Law Office’s Legal Information Institute, “One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system, holds that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. In other words, the prosecution must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, each essential element of the crime charged.”
In this article we are going to focus more on the next path in the court process, where the person charged is required to appear before a judge. The start of this path usually begins with either a summons into court or an arrest. Once this process is started there are three basic phases: advisement, adjudication and sentencing. Keep in mind these are just rough groupings of court processes put together to help the average person understand some of the more complicated parts of the court system. This is not legal advice and these are not law school definitions of court processes.
For purposes of this example, let’s assume the person we are following through the court system is you. If you receive a summons requiring you to attend a hearing, then that court date itself is usually your advisement hearing. These ‘summons’ are usually in the form of a ticket (that you cannot otherwise pay) or another official government document.
On the other hand, if you were arrested, then your first appearance would be the next business day. Although the Constitution does not specifically spell out the amount of time the government has to file charges against someone after they have been arrested, most states (including Colorado) adhere to a maximum of 72 hours. In either case, your first appearance before the judge would be an advisement of the charges against you and usually includes the punishments you may face.
In most of these hearings, the judge will set a bond and assign counsel to represent the defendant if the person charged (you) cannot afford one. Depending on the type of case and the charges, you may also have to attend other advisement hearings. These other hearings can consist of an arraignment or preliminary hearing. In an arraignment, you will again be formally advised of the charges against you; except now you will get a chance to enter a guilty/not guilty plea. (Note: preliminary hearings will be explored more in Part III of this series.)
Once you have been advised of your rights, the charges against you, and enter a plea, you begin the adjudication phase. This is the most complicated phase as far as the court process is concerned. If you plead guilty to the charges against you. then this phase is drastically shortened. After a guilty plea, most things are handled by the attorneys through plea bargaining and other legal arguments determining what charges will be continued to sentencing. It is very important that you stay engaged even though most things are in the hands of attorneys at this point. Their pleadings can dramatically affect the outcome of your case, so do not be afraid to speak your mind.
If you do not plead guilty and you wish to contest the charges against you, then the process becomes more formal. At this point, your attorney will contest matters of evidence before going to trial usually in Motions or Pretrial hearings. This is another very important step that you should engage in because the use of evidence can dramatically bolster your case or break the case against you. All of this culminates, of course, in a jury trial.
The ability to be tried by a jury of your peers is the essence of the American system of justice and should never be underestimated. However, keep in mind, there are pros and cons to either putting your fate in the hands of six to 12 of your peers or presumably fair-minded attorneys.
Finally, there is a fairly straightforward phase of sentencing. This is where the judge takes all evidence, arguments and/or jury verdict and determines your overall punishment. Many times, there are certain mandatory sentencing guidelines set by law to which the judge must adhere. But judges usually have at least some degree of discretion in sentencing. Therefore, it is necessary that you conduct yourself in a respectful, polite and professional manner throughout the other phases. This can also help affect the outcome of your case.