Being charged with a crime is a serious matter and can be an upsetting and disorienting experience. For those going through the process for the first time, it can be helpful to know how the process works. Below is a brief description of what a person can expect from the point of arrest through the resolution of their criminal case.
A person placed under arrest will typically be handcuffed. An officer should read them their rights, which include advising them of their right to remain silent. If a person does make a statement to police, that statement can later be used against them in court. Once arrested, the officer will take them to a detention facility where they can expect to be fingerprinted and photographed. Their possessions will be taken and placed into storage until they are released. The person will typically be given an opportunity to make a phone call.
Usually, within 48 hours of arrest, they will be brought before a magistrate for a bail hearing. The magistrate will impose conditions for their release, which may be a written promise to appear, or which may include paying an amount of money, known as bail or a bond, that will be returned if the person later appears in court as required. For some serious charges, bail may be denied, and the person will be forced to remain in jail until the case is resolved. However, bail decisions can be revisited and changed by the court at a later date in light of new information.
After appearing before the magistrate, the next judge a person sees is typically at their first appearance or arraignment, which occurs shortly after arrest. There, the judge will read the charges and inform the defendant of their right to an attorney. If the person wishes and is able to hire their own attorney, this hearing is where they will inform the court. If not, and they need and desire an attorney to be appointed, the court will appoint them one.
It is the job of the defense attorney to help guide their client through the process, to help them make informed decisions about their case, and to advocate for their rights. In some places, this attorney will work for a local Public Defenders Office, and in others, they will be in private practice and take appointments from an appointed counsel list. In either case, North Carolina Indigent Defense Services will ensure that the person has licensed counsel to assist them in defending their case.
After a person has been formally charged, advised of their rights, and has secured an attorney to represent them, their case may proceed differently depending on a variety of factors. These can include the seriousness of the offense, the strength of the evidence, and the availability of witnesses and court personnel needed to resolve the case. Once charged, defendants and their attorneys are entitled to “discover” and develop an informed understanding of the State’s evidence. After people understand the evidence that the prosecution may introduce against them at trial and receive advice from their attorney, they are in a better position to make decisions about what to do.
Most criminal convictions are obtained as a result of defendants pleading guilty in exchange for some agreement with the prosecution as to what the criminal consequences should be. However, prosecutors are not required to offer pleas, and defendants cannot be made to accept them. It is the defendant’s absolute right to decide whether to plead guilty or to take their case to trial and force the State to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the defense attorney’s job to help the defendant achieve their goals in the case, whether that be fighting the case at trial or trying to reduce the length of a future sentence by negotiating a plea.
If a plea agreement is not reached and charges are not dismissed, the case will eventually be brought to trial where the defendant, if they choose, may testify in their own defense. Depending on the nature of the charge and decisions of the defendant made in consultation with their attorney, a trial may be decided by a judge (called a “bench trial”) or by a jury made up of members of the community. If the trial results in a Not Guilty verdict, the case is over, the defendant is free to go, and they cannot be retried on the charge. If the trial results in a Guilty verdict, depending on the charge, the defendant may be taken into custody if they were not previously in custody. In some cases, the trial may result in what is called a mistrial. This occurs when something goes wrong in the trial prior to the case going to the judge or jury for a verdict. Whether a defendant can be retried in the event of a mistrial depends on the circumstances and the reasons for the mistrial occurring.
In cases where defendants are convicted, the next step of the process is sentencing, where the court or jury will impose a punishment, typically either a fine, period of imprisonment, or both, sometimes with conditions of post-release supervision. Defendants who are convicted and sentenced have the right to appeal their conviction and to ask a higher court to set it aside if there was an error in the way their case was handled. Defense attorneys play an important role during the trial process in making a record of errors as they occur so that they can later be challenged on appeal. Defendants appealing their conviction often do so with the assistance of an appellate lawyer, who is typically different than the lawyer who handled their case at trial or who negotiated their plea. If a person has appellate rights and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, they may obtain one from the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender.
Other cases: The above summary describes the typical cycle of a case in adult criminal court. Cases charged in the juvenile system will proceed differently, as will some non-criminal cases, such as parental abuse and neglect matters, for which counsel may be appointed. To learn more about those proceedings, visit the relevant defender website, linked in the main menu.