An Overview of a Criminal Case

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Criminal cases can be confusing for defendants, victims, and witnesses. Victims and defendants have a right to know what is happening at every stage of their case. This article goes over the parts of a criminal case in the order they happen.

To learn more about victims’ rights, read Your Rights as a Victim of a Crime. To learn more about being a defendant in a criminal case, read I Have Been Arrested or Charged with a Crime.

Police Investigate a Reported Crime

When a crime is reported, the police will investigate it. Depending on the crime and its location, it could be a municipal police department, county sheriff, or the Michigan State Police Department. In some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) could also get involved.

In general, criminal investigations will involve gathering evidence and crime scene inspection. Police officers will also interview victims, witnesses, and suspects.  A suspect is a person suspected of committing a crime.

Police Get a Warrant

During the investigation, police will work with a local prosecutor to get search and arrest warrants.

Search Warrants

Police can ask for search warrants to find evidence related to a crime. Search warrants can allow police to search many different things. Some examples are:

  • A home or other private property
  • Electronics used to communicate or to store information, such as cell phones and computers
  • Blood or DNA samples

A prosecutor might review a warrant, but only a judge is allowed to sign warrants. Some magistrates are allowed to sign warrants too. The judge or magistrate will sign a warrant if they find probable cause.

The warrant will say what police are allowed to search. If police search an area that was not mentioned in the warrant, the evidence they collected might not be allowed in court. Making an argument to keep evidence out of a case can be complicated. If you have questions about how evidence was collected, you should speak with a criminal lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area.

Arrest Warrants

If a police officer sees someone committing a crime, they can arrest that person without a warrant. If an officer finds probable cause the suspect committed the crime, they can arrest that person. Police officers can also issue citations at the scene of the crime for misdemeanors and civil infractions. These citations will have instructions on reporting to court for arraignment.  For all other crimes, an officer needs to get a warrant to arrest a suspect. As with search warrants, arrest warrants need to be supported by probable cause. A prosecutor might review a warrant, but only a  judge or magistrate is allowed to sign warrants. The judge or magistrate will sign a warrant if they find probable cause that the person committed the crime.

In some cases, a prosecutor can ask a judge to issue a summons for a suspect instead of asking for a warrant. This means that instead of being arrested, the person is ordered to appear in court. If the person doesn’t show up to court, then the prosecutor will ask for a warrant or ask the judge to order a show cause hearing. A show cause hearing allows the suspect to explain why they didn’t show up to court.

Suspect Arrested and Arraigned

Police can arrest a suspect if they have probable cause or once the judge or magistrate signs the warrant. However, this may not happen right away if police cannot find the suspect.

When an officer arrests a suspect, they must tell the suspect about their “Miranda rights.” The most common version of Miranda rights is: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” There may be other versions that state a suspect’s rights differently.

After a suspect is arrested, they will be arraigned. This means they will go to court and be told the criminal charges against them and the maximum punishment they are facing. This is when the suspect becomes the defendant in the case. During the arraignment, the judge will also go over the defendant’s rights to a jury trial and to get a court-appointed lawyer. This means if the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint a public defender for free. While the lawyer may be free, the defendant will still be responsible for paying all court fees and any fines the judge may impose.

Defendants have a right to be represented by a lawyer at every step in a criminal trial.

Bail and Bond

During the arraignment, the judge could also set bail, bond, and conditions of release. Bail is money or other property a defendant must give the court to be released from jail during the criminal case.

Bond is the promise the defendant makes to come to court when required. There are four common types of bond:

  • Personal recognizance bond: The defendant is released solely on the promise they will return to court when required (no money is paid).
  • Cash bond: The judge sets a bail amount that the defendant must pay in full before they are released on the promise they will return to court when required.
  • Ten-percent bond: The defendant only needs to pay 10% of the full bail amount to be released on the promise they will return to court when required. If they do not return to court, the defendant will be charged the remaining 90% of the bail amount.
  • Surety bond: A bondsman promises the court that the defendant will appear in court when required. The bondsman must prove they will pay the full bail amount if the defendant doesn’t return to court.

Even if the defendant shows up to court as required, the court could keep any cash or other property the defendant gave to pay off court fees and fines. The defendant will get back any part of the bond that is not used to pay court costs.

If the defendant doesn’t show up to court, they can be arrested, lose the cash or property they gave the court, and be responsible for any unpaid bail amount. They may be held in jail during the court process so that the court can make sure they show up to their court dates.

Some criminal cases that are not eligible for bond, or the judge may deny bond in some cases. This means the defendant will have to stay in jail until the trial is over.

The Difference between Misdemeanor and Felony Arraignments

All arraignments start in district court. Defendants charged with a felony will eventually be sent to the county’s circuit court.

Misdemeanor Arraignments

During a misdemeanor arraignment, if the defendant hasn’t hired a lawyer, they can ask for a court-appointed lawyer (public defender) if they can’t afford one. At the arraignment, the defendant will be allowed to enter a plea. A plea is an answer to the charge. Defendants can plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. Pleading “no contest” (also called “nolo contendere”) means the defendant will be found guilty, but the defendant neither admits nor denies the crime.

Defendants can also choose to “stand mute,” which means they remain silent. When this happens, the judge will treat it as a plea of not guilty. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pretrial conference.

If the defendant pleads no contest or guilty, the case will move to the sentencing phase. Depending on the charge, the judge could sentence them the day of the plea, or at a later sentencing date. When sentencing is set for a later date, it gives the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentencing report. This report will have information about the defendant’s background, the crime, and sentencing recommendations.

Pretrial Conference

A pretrial conference is a meeting between an assistant prosecutor and the defendant and the defendant’s lawyer. During the meeting, they will decide if they can agree on a plea bargain. If they cannot, the case will move toward the trial phase. Cases can be settled with a plea bargain at any time. This means the parties can come to an agreement after the pretrial conference, but before the trial. To learn more about criminal trials, read the section “The Trial” below.

If they agree on a plea bargain, they will need to present it to the judge for approval. The judge can approve the bargain or reject it. If the judge rejects the plea bargain the parties can try to come up with a plea bargain the judge will agree to, or they can have a trial.

It is also possible for the judge and the defendant’s lawyer to come to an agreement, even if the prosecutor doesn’t agree.

Felony Arraignments

During a felony arraignment in district court, the judge explains that the defendant has a right to a preliminary examination (also called “prelim”) within 14 days of the arraignment. The judge may also consider the defendant’s request for a court-appointed lawyer. The defendant will not enter a plea at this time.

Pre-Exam Conference (Probable Cause Conference)

Some courts schedule a pre-exam conference several days before the prelim. This meeting is similar to the pre-trial conference for misdemeanor cases. The assistant prosecutor will meet with the defendant and their lawyer to see if they can agree on a plea bargain. If they cannot, the case will move toward the trial phase. Cases can be settled with a plea bargain at any time. This means that the parties can come to an agreement after the pre-exam conference, but before the trial. To learn more about criminal trials, read the section “The Trial” below.

If they are able to agree on a plea bargain, they will need to present it to the judge for approval. Depending on the specifics of the case, it is possible that only a circuit court judge could approve the bargain. If the judge rejects it, they will order a trial.

Preliminary Examination (Prelim)

A prelim is a hearing in front of a district court judge that happens within 14 days of the arraignment. It is sometimes called a “probable cause hearing.” The prosecutor will try to convince the judge that there is probable cause (reasonable grounds) that the defendant committed the crime. The burden of proof is less than at trial, so the prosecutor may not call all witnesses to testify.

The defendant or their lawyer can ask the witnesses questions (cross-examine them). The defendant can also present their own evidence, and call witnesses on their behalf. A defendant can also waive (give up) their right to a prelim.

If there is a prelim and the judge decides there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, the judge can do any of the following:

  • Send (bind over) the case to circuit court on different charges
  • Reduce the charges to misdemeanors for trial in district court
  • Dismiss the charges

If the judge finds there is probable cause, and the court is in a county that has a unified court system, the arraignment will happen at district court. For courts in counties that are not part of a unified court system, the district court judge will send the case to the circuit court.

Second Arraignment at Circuit Court

After the case is sent to circuit court, the defendant will be arraigned again. This time the defendant will be asked to enter a plea. There could be a pre-trial conference where the prosecutor, defendant, and the defendant’s lawyer could agree on a plea bargain to avoid going to trial. There could be other pretrial proceedings if there are other issues the judge needs to decide before a trial.

The Trial

At the trial the prosecutor must prove the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The prosecutor will do this by calling witnesses and presenting other evidence. 

The defendant is not required to prove their innocence, but their lawyer should challenge the prosecutor’s evidence and witnesses. The defendant’s lawyer can also present their own evidence and witnesses.

At the end of the trial either the judge or a jury will decide whether the defendant committed the crime based on the evidence. Both sides have the right to a jury trial. However, both sides could also agree to a bench trial. In a bench trial, the judge will listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury.

Jury Selection

The court randomly selects people from a list from the Secretary of State to be possible jurors. At court, there will be a random draw of 12 people to sit on a jury for felony cases. There are six jurors for misdemeanor cases.

The judge, prosecutor, and defendant’s lawyer will ask the potential jurors about their backgrounds and beliefs. This process is called “voir dire.” The prosecutor and defendant’s lawyer are allowed to dismiss a limited number of jurors without giving a reason. These are called peremptory challenges. They are also allowed to dismiss as many jurors as they want if there is good cause. If a juror is dismissed during this process, an alternate will take their place. This continues until the court has the required number of jurors.

The judge will then have the jurors take an oath and will give them basic instructions about the trial process. The judge could start the trial at that point or schedule it to start soon after.

Opening Statements and Presenting Evidence

At the start of the trial, the prosecutor will give an opening statement. This means the prosecutor will give a summary of their case and talk about the evidence they will show the jury. The defendant’s lawyer can decide to give their opening statement after the prosecutor finishes their opening statement or after the prosecutor finishes presenting all the evidence.

The prosecutor will call witnesses and ask them questions to try to prove their case. The defendant’s lawyer is allowed to cross-examine them.

Once the prosecutor has finished calling witnesses and entering evidence, the defendant’s lawyer will be able to call their witnesses. The prosecutor will be able to cross-examine those witnesses.

When the defendant’s lawyer is done, the prosecutor may decide to present rebuttal witnesses and evidence to challenge the evidence and witnesses the defendant’s lawyer presented. In some cases, the judge could allow the defendant’s lawyer to call more witnesses after the prosecutor’s rebuttal (called a “sur-rebuttal”).

Closing Statements and the Verdict

The prosecutor will then give their closing statement. A closing statement is the lawyer's theory of the case, or what they think happened. A closing statement cannot include facts that were not mentioned during the trial.

The defendant’s lawyer will give their closing statement after the prosecutor finishes theirs. The prosecutor may get to give a rebuttal argument to the defendant’s lawyer’s closing statement.

The judge will then give the jury detailed instructions about the crimes charged and the deliberation process. The jury will then discuss the case (deliberate) and reach a verdict (decide whether the defendant committed the crime). The jury’s verdict must be unanimous, meaning all jurors agree.

If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will sentence them. Sentencing could happen right away, or at a later date. If the jury or judge finds the defendant not guilty, it’s called an acquittal. If the jurors can’t agree the case could end in a mistrial. This means that the defendant has not yet been found guilty, but the prosecutor could start another trial.

Sentencing of a Defendant Found Guilty

Once a defendant is found guilty, either in a trial or by plea, the court’s probation department will prepare a pre-sentence report. This report will include information about the crime and the defendant’s background. All victims of the crime will be contacted for recommendations of sentence. The probation officer will include a recommended sentence in the report.

The judge decides the sentence. They will consider everything in the pre-sentence report, as well as any sentencing guidelines that may be required. The judge could decide to sentence the defendant to probation, community service, jail/prison, fines, or a combination of these. The judge could also order the defendant to pay restitution to the victim if they were financially harmed.

Defendant Acquitted; Right to Destruction of Arrest Records

If the jury finds the defendant is not guilty of committing the crime, it’s called an acquittal. If a defendant is acquitted, nothing about the case should be on their criminal record. If you have been acquitted but the arrest and charges still show up on your criminal record, read Fixing Mistakes on Your Criminal Record.

The Appeals Process for Criminal Cases

An appeal from a district court is heard by a circuit court judge. An appeal from circuit court is heard by the Michigan Court of Appeals. An appeal from there is heard by the Michigan Supreme Court. There is not always a right to appeal at every level. There are times when the court can decide whether to hear an appeal.

There are three kinds of appeals:

  • Interlocutory: when a party appeals a judge’s decision before the case goes to trial or before the trial is finished
  • Appeal of right:  when a party appeals the final order of the judge (most of these appeals focus on sentencing)
  • Appeal by leave of the court: when an appeal of right is not available (usually because the appealing party missed the filing deadline), the appellate court can “grant leave”

If a court grants leave to appeal, it means it is allowing the parties to submit briefs. A brief is a document used to support a case. It should include the facts of the case, what the defendant wants to happen, arguments supporting the defendant’s view, and binding authority (such as case law and statutes to support their case. The parties can also ask the court to schedule the case for oral arguments.

Appeals are complicated. If you are interested in appealing a decision, you may want to talk to an experienced criminal lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area.