Process of a Criminal Case
The process of what occurs during a criminal case may be confusing to a victim or witness. The following summary strives to help explain the general processes that a criminal case follows through Shiawassee County’s court system. (Note that other counties across the State may not exactly follow these particular steps or procedures.)
Commencement of a Criminal Case
A Crime is Committed and the Police Investigate
Upon the report of a commission of a crime, the police will conduct an investigation. The investigation process may be simple and relatively quick, or it may take an extended period of time, depending upon the facts and circumstances of the case. The investigation may include interviews with the victim, witnesses, and suspects, the collection of physical evidence, visiting, viewing, photographing, or measuring the crime scene, identifying suspects through line ups, executing search warrants, obtaining investigative subpoenas, or any of many other possible investigative techniques.
A police officer may arrest a suspect on-the-spot without an arrest warrant if:
- the crime was committed in the officer’s presence;
- the police officer has probable cause to believe that a certain misdemeanor was committed (even if the officer did not see the crime occur); or
- the police officer has probable cause to believe that any felony was committed (even if the officer did not see the crime occur).
If the officer arrests without a warrant upon probable cause or because he/she observed the crime’s commission, or if the police officer would like to obtain an arrest warrant, the police officer will submit a warrant request to the prosecutor’s office, suggesting the charges the officer would like authorized.
Warrant Request Reviewed by Prosecutor
Most cases begin with a warrant request. This is generally the first time that the prosecutor’s office is involved in a case, unless the prosecutor has previously reviewed a search warrant or petition for investigative subpoena. At this stage, the prosecutor determines whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what crime. The prosecutor must thoroughly review all reports and records concerning the case, including witness statements. The prosecutor also reviews the suspect’s prior criminal history or traffic record. Occasionally, the prosecutor sends the case back to the police to conduct additional investigation.
While the Prosecutor or her assistants can issue a charge if she/he reasonably believes that probable cause exists that the suspect committed the offense, the Prosecutor and her staff typically apply a higher standard—whether the charge can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This is because the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is the standard by which a jury must determine a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence. If the prosecutor believes that additional investigation may help in meeting this burden before a jury, the prosecutor will exercise her/his discretion in sending the case back to the police for further investigation.
Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody)
The delay between the crime date and the defendant’s arrest on an authorized warrant can sometimes take a lengthy amount of time. This is sometimes extended if the defendant has left the State of Michigan or if the defendant’s whereabouts are unknown.
District Court Arraignment
This is the first court appearance for any criminal defendant, whether charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. Once arrested and charged, the suspect appears in the 66th District Court for arraignment. The defendant is told what the charges are and the maximum penalty if convicted, and is advised of his/her constitutional rights to a jury or bench trial, appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, and other rights. The charging document is called a “Complaint.” The conditions and amount of bond are determined by the judge or arraigning magistrate. In some cases—generally based on the nature of the charge—the court will impose conditions on any bond, such as no contact with the victim of the crime. Bond is sent in almost all cases, but it is up to the defendant’s resources to post this bail money, which allows him to be released pending trial.
Beyond this initial District Court arraignment, the further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanor Pretrial Procedures
Misdemeanor cases remain entirely within the 66th District Court. At the misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty, plead not guilty, or stand mute. If a defendant “stands mute” (i.e., remains silent) the court enters a not guilty plea on the defendant’s behalf. If the defendant pleads guilty, the Judge may sentence the defendant on the spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence investigation report. This report would include information about the background of the defendant, the circumstances of the crime, and would likely include a sentencing recommendation for the court. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case is scheduled for a pretrial conference.
Pretrial Conferences are meetings between the prosecutor and the defendant or his/her attorney to determine whether the case will go to trial or will be resolved with a plea. These meetings typically focus on resolving the case short of trial. The Judge and the witnesses are not directly involved in misdemeanor pretrial conferences. If a plea bargain is going to be offered to the defendant by the prosecutor’s office, it is done at this conference. If it looks as though a misdemeanor case will not resolve with a plea, the pretrial conference is often used to discuss any legal or evidentiary issues that may exist in the case.
There are typically two pretrial conferences scheduled in misdemeanor cases in Shiawassee County. At the first conference, the defendant often appears without representation. If the defendant would like an attorney appointed for him/her, this is where the request is typically made to the court. If the case is not resolved at the first pretrial conference, the case will be placed upon the court’s trial docket and the trial prosecutor will appear and discuss the case at the final pretrial conference.
Felony Pretrial Procedures
A the felony arraignment in District Court, the defendant does not plead guilty or not guilty. Instead, the defendant is advised of his right to a preliminary examination to be held within 14 days of the arraignment in District Court. The requested by the defendant, the arraigning judge will instruct the defendant on the steps required to obtain a court-appointed attorney from the Circuit Court.
A Felony Preliminary Examination is the first step in a felony criminal case after the District Court arraignment. This is a contested hearing held before a District Court Judge within 14 days of the District Court arraignment. The preliminary examination is often called a “probable cause hearing,” because the District Court Judge must determine whether the prosecutor can establish reasonable suspicion based upon articulable facts that the charged crimes were committed and that the defendant was the person who committed them. Because the burden of proof is much less than the burden at trial, the prosecutor will not typically call all of the trial witnesses at the “prelim.” Generally, just a small fraction of trial witnesses are called, typically including the victim and the police. The defendant, through his/her attorney, may cross examine the witnesses and present his/her own evidence. If probable cause is established, the defendant is bound over to (i.e., sent to) the Circuit Court for trial. If the Judge decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the charged crimes, the Judge can bind the case over on different charges, can reduce the charges to misdemeanors for trial in District Court, or can dismiss the case. A defendant often concedes the existence of probable cause by waiving his/her right to the preliminary examination. Most felonies arrive in Circuit Court after this kind of “waiver.”
A Circuit Court Arraignment typically happens immediately after the defendant is bound over to the Circuit Court by the District Court Judge. The District Court Judge (sitting as a temporary Circuit Court Judge) will give formal notice to the defendant of the charges contained in the “Information,” the Circuit Court charging document. The defendant is again advised of his/her constitutional rights and may now enter a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty, or stand mute).
A Felony Pretrial Conference is typically held on a Friday morning at 8:00 am within one or two weeks after the Circuit Court arraignment. This conference is a meeting between the prosecutor and the defense attorney to determine whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea.
A Felony Status Conference is scheduled typically 4 to 6 weeks before trial for the prosecutor and the defense attorney to again discuss whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea. If the case cannot be resolved with a plea, any pretrial motions or other legal issues may be discussed at this hearing.
A Felony Settlement Conference is scheduled typically 1 week before the felony case is set for trial. This is the final meeting between the defense attorney and the prosecutor to determine whether the case may be resolved with a plea or trial. The settlement conferences are held in the Judge’s chambers to permit the court to weigh in on any last minute issues that may be present in the case.
A trial is an adversarial proceeding in which the prosecutor must present evidence to a judge or jury to prove the defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not required to prove his/her innocence or present any evidence, but may challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor’s evidence. Before the close of the proofs in any criminal case, a defendant is presumed innocent, meaning that he/she must be found not guilty unless the prosecutor is able to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by legally admissible evidence.
Both the defendant and the prosecutor (who represents the People of the State of Michigan) have the right to a trial by 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, a jury of citizens of the county decide the facts of the case and determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence. The jury is the “trier of fact.” In a bench trial, the Judge fills this role.
After all of the evidence is presented, the judge or jury determines whether the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
Here are the general steps in a jury trial:
1. Residents of Shiawassee County are randomly selected from a Secretary of State list of licensed drivers, and are summoned into the court as potential jurors.
2. A blind draw selects twelve people from that group in felonies (six in misdemeanor District Court cases).
3. The judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney question the jurors during voir dire about their background and beliefs.
4. The attorneys are permitted a limited a number of preemptory challenges to various jurors (or an unlimited number of challenges for good cause).
5. After twelve acceptable jurors remain (or six for misdemeanors), the Judge administers the oath to the jury and reads basic instructions about the trial process and certain legal principles.
6. The prosecutor gives an opening statement to outline the People’s case and evidence to the jury.
7. The defense may give an opening statement to the jury, or wait until later in the trial.
8. The prosecutor calls witnesses, which the defense may cross examine, and admits evidence.
9. The People close their proofs.
10. The defense may call witnesses, if it wants, and the prosecutor may cross-examine them.
11. The defense rests.
12. The prosecutor may present “rebuttal” witnesses/evidence to challenge evidence presented by the defendant during his/her proofs.
13. The prosecutor rests.
14. The prosecutor presents a closing argument to the jury.
15. The defense attorney presents a closing argument to the jury.
16. The prosecutor presents a rebuttal closing argument to the jury to respond to the defendant’s attorney’s closing argument.
17. The judge gives the jury detailed legal instructions about the charged crimes, the deliberation process, and how to render a verdict.
18. The jury deliberates and returns a verdict.
Presentence 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. Most often, sentences are at the judge’s discretion. The judge will consider the information in the presentence report (subject to the factual corrections by the parties), additional evidence offered by the parties, comments by the victim, and other information relevant to the judge’s sentencing decision. For felonies, the Circuit Court Judge will consult the Michigan Sentencing Guidelines. These guidelines are a statutorily established set of rules for determining the appropriate term of incarceration in felony cases. The guidelines factor in aspects of the defendant’s criminal conduct and his/her prior record to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. The Judge may consider different alternatives such as a fine, probation, community service, or a sentence to jail or prison, or any combination of these.
The judge must also order the defendant to make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm from the commission of the crime. If the amount of restitution is disputed by the defendant, the court may schedule the case for a restitution hearing, whereat the parties present evidence as to the loss suffered by the victim.
Appeals from the District Court are heard in the Circuit Court. Appeals from the Circuit Court are heard in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Appeals from the Court of Appeals are heard in the Michigan Supreme Court.
There are three kinds of appeals: (1) interlocutory, (2) appeals of right, and (3) appeals by leave.
Interlocutory Appeals occur when a party appeals a trial judge’s decision before the case has come to trial or before the trial has finished.
Appeals of Right occur after a final order has been entered by the trial court (either a sentencing order, or an order dismissing charges). An amendment to the Michigan Constitution has eliminated most appeals of right when a defendant pleads guilty. Most appeals of right are now focused on the sentence imposed or allegations of error in a jury trial.
Appeals by Leave occur when an appeal of right is not available (for example, after a plea, or when an appeal of right was not filed on time). The appellate court has the discretion to reject the appeal or can “grant leave,” meaning it will take the appeal.
On an appeal, the prosecutor and the defense file briefs that summarize the facts of the case, frame the legal issues to be decided, and present arguments (supported by constitutional, statutory, or prior case decisions) to persuade the court that their position is the correct one. Either party can request that the case be scheduled for oral arguments before the appellate court. The appellate court will eventually issue a written opinion (or several opinions if the judges disagree).