How a Criminal Case Progresses in St. Joseph County
- A crime is committed and the police are notified.
- An investigation is done and a suspect is identified.
An investigation may take some time. When all the evidence is gathered and analyzed, and lab evidence (if necessary) is received, the police send the results to the Prosecutor’s office, and a decision is made about prosecution.
- Police Make an Arrest.
When a crime is committed in a police officer's presence -- or there is probable cause to believe that certain misdemeanors or any felony was committed that was not seen by the officer --- an officer may arrest a suspect on the spot without an arrest warrant. The officer will later submit a warrant request to the Prosecuting Attorney, suggesting charges to be authorized. The Prosecutor will issue the charging document (called a complaint), indicating the criminal charges that will be pursued.
- Charging Request Reviewed by Prosecuting Attorney.
Most cases begin with a warrant request. This is generally the first time that the Prosecuting Attorney is involved in a case. At this stage, the Prosecutor determines whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what the crime should be. The Prosecuting Attorney must thoroughly review all reports and records concerning the case, including witness statements. The Prosecutor also reviews the suspect's prior criminal or traffic record. Occasionally, the reviewing Prosecutor sends the case back to the police to conduct additional investigation.
- Warrant Issued.
The Prosecutor will authorize a charge on a complaint if he or she believes that probable cause exists that the suspect committed the offense and that there is good reason to believe the case can be proven at trial. Not all cases go to trial, but the Prosecutor must feel confident that the evidence shows a convincing picture of the defendant’s guilt before the offense is charged on a complaint or warrant. The complaint is filed in the District Court and signed under oath by an officer from the investigating police department. Occasionally a victim will be asked to sign the complaint. The magistrate then reviews the warrant and affidavit of probable cause (prepared by the investigating officer) and issues the warrant. This process can take another few days and then the arrest warrant becomes valid and can be used to arrest a suspect.
- Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody).
There can be some time before a defendant is arrested on an outstanding warrant. Usually warrants are kept active by the District Court for a year or more. It is not unusual for warrants to be open for several years. However, the vast majority of warrants are served within a few months of issuance, and most within a couple of weeks or a month. The warrant information is available to all police agencies by several computer databases. A defendant stopped for a traffic offense in Michigan can be arrested for our outstanding warrant. For many felony crimes, defendants can also be detained on our warrant in other states. A magistrate sets bond, which is based on the seriousness of the crime, likelihood of flight, and danger to the victim or public. The magistrate may also impose a “no contact” order, meaning the defendant may not contact the victim in any way.
- District Court Arraignment.
This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a crime, the suspect appears in District Court for arraignment. Defendants that are in jail are arraigned by closed-circuit video at the jail. At arraignment, the defendant is told what the charge(s) is (are) and the maximum penalty if convicted, and is advised of his constitutional rights.
All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor.
At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty, not guilty, no contest, or stand mute (i.e., remain silent, which is treated by the court as if the defendant pled not guilty). If he pleads guilty or no contest, the Judge may sentence him on the spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, etc. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
It is a scheduled meeting between an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and the defendant (or the defendant’s attorney) to determine whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea. These meetings focus on resolving the case short of trial. The Judge and witnesses are not involved at this point. If a plea bargain is going to be offered by the Prosecutor, it is done here.
Many other events can occur prior to trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pre-trial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). The issues are presented to the Court through written "motions" (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant's trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.
At a felony arraignment in District Court, the defendant does not plead guilty or not guilty. He is advised of his right to a preliminary examination within 14 days of the arraignment. The court reviews requests for court-appointed attorneys at the arraignment.
Felony Preliminary Examination
A contested hearing before a District Court Judge, sometimes called a "probable cause hearing". The Prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the Judge that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. Because the burden of proof is much less than at a trial, the Prosecutor generally does not call all potential witnesses to testify at the "prelim"; generally, the victim and some eye witnesses plus some of the police witnesses testify. The defendant has an attorney, can cross examine the witnesses, and can present his own evidence (including witnesses). If probable cause is proven, the defendant is "bound over" that is, sent to Circuit Court for trial. If probable cause is not proven, the felony charge can be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor for trial in District Court. A defendant can decide not to have a Preliminary Examination, in which case the matter automatically is filed in the Circuit Court.
Circuit Court Arraignment
After the case is sent to Circuit Court, the defendant is again arraigned (given formal notice of the charges against him or her). The charging document is called an Information. He or she is again advised of his/her constitutional rights, and enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty or stand mute).
A Circuit Court meeting between the Prosecuting Attorney and the defendant's attorney to determine whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea.
As with District Court misdemeanors, the Circuit Court Judge may be asked to resolve pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed.
Open felony cases that are awaiting trial are scheduled for a status conference, held each month. For each status conference scheduled, potential trial dates are identified. Each conference results in between one and three cases that will be tried on the dates that have been selected already. The remaining cases may be resolved by a guilty plea, or will remain open to be placed on a future status conference schedule.
A trial is an adversary proceeding in which the Prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence or to present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the Prosecutor's evidence.
Both the defendant and the Prosecutor have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a "bench trial". In a jury trial, the jury is the "trier of fact"; in a bench trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.
Pre-Sentence Investigation and Report
The court's probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant's personal and criminal backgrounds. Generally, the victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.
Sentencing in Michigan varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Often, sentences (especially in District Court) are at the judge's discretion. At the time of sentencing, the judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. For felony crimes, the judge will consult the "sentencing guidelines" a process which includes facts of the offense and a prior criminal background to determine the minimum jail or prison sentence. The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a fine, probation, community service, a sentence to jail or prison, or a combination. The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm.