You find yourself in a terrible situation, you have been charged with violating a law for which you may be required to pay fines, spend time in jail or both. The following is intended to be a basic primer of how the criminal process works.
A criminal action is commenced by a police officer arresting a person. After an arrest, the county attorney's office will file a preliminary complaint. After the preliminary complaint is filed, the person who is accused of a crime (the defendant) makes an initial appearance before the court. If the person is in custody issues such as bail will normally be raised. At the initial appearance the defendant may either demand or waive a preliminary hearing.
The purpose of a preliminary hearing is to allow the defendant an opportunity to hear the evidence against him or her and allow the court to determine if the state has adequate evidence to move forward with the case. The state does not have to show that it has evidence to prove the defendant will be found guilty by a judge or jury, it merely must show some evidence that tends to suggest that the accused did in fact commit the crime. The right to a preliminary hearing is NOT absolute — if the state files a trial information prior to the date of the preliminary hearing, the preliminary hearing will be canceled.
A defendant loses the right to a preliminary hearing where the state has filed a trial information or minutes of testimony from the grand jury because the trial information or minutes of testimony from the grand jury satisfies both purposes the preliminary hearing is intended to meet. As the formal document charging the defendant with a particular crime, the trial information advises the defendant of the evidence the state intends to rely upon to prove the defendant's guilt. The trial Information is approved by the judge. By approving it the court is indicating that the state has adequate evidence to move forward with the case. If the state has filed minutes of testimony which are approved by the court, the defendant again has been advised of the evidence and the court has found that the state has adequate evidence to move forward with the case.
After the preliminary hearing or trial information is filed (or minutes of testimony from the grand jury) the next step in the process is the arraignment. At the arraignment, the defendant is formally charged with the crime. The arraignment is important because it sets certain time limits for the state and defense attorney to file certain motions. It also sets running the time limit for the state to bring the defendant to trial. Under normal circumstances, a criminal defendant is entitled to be brought to trial within 90 days after arraignment.
At the arraignment, the court will usually set dates for a pre-trial conference and trial. What occurs at the pre-trial conference will vary from county to county. In some counties it may be used as an opportunity to plea bargain the case; in other counties it may be used solely to handle legal issues that need to be addressed prior to trial.
Throughout the process discussions will normally be held between the state and the attorney for the defendant as to possible plea bargains. The decision to plead guilty is the defendant's and the defendant's alone to make. Factors too numerous to list here may cause a defendant to be willing to enter a plea of guilty either to the crime accused of or some lesser or different offense.
One factor which may lead a defendant to plead guilty to some offense is if the state agrees the defendant may receive a deferred judgment. In a deferred judgment, judgment is deferred. The defendant must admit that he or she committed the crime, or at least must admit that the state has adequate evidence to prove the defendant's guilt at trial. The defendant is then placed on probation for a certain period of time. They are usually required to attend classes or treatment, make a charitable contribution, do community service or some combination of the above. In exchange for this, the defendant, assuming no violation of the terms of probation, will be discharged from probation the criminal record will be expunged. A person is entitled to up to two deferred judgments during a lifetime. A deferred judgment is NOT always available.
Other actions will occur prior to a final trial or plea. The defendant's attorney, with the assistance of the defendant and possibly others, will try to gather information which can be used to prevent the state from proving the defendant's guilt. It is important to remember that the defendant does not have to prove his or her innocence, but merely must prevent the state from proving his or her guilt. Information may be gathered by speaking to witnesses, reviewing documents, reviewing the applicable law, and otherwise showing how the facts and circumstances do not prove the guilt of the defendant. In certain cases, an affirmative defense may be used, such as self defense or alibi.
If there are concerns that the defendant's constitutional rights were violated, the defendant's attorney may seek to prevent the state from using evidence which was acquired in violation of the defendant's rights. The defendant's attorney may also seek to prevent the state from using evidence which may not be relevant to the case, but may cause a jury to be confused or angry with the defendant.
If the defendant's case is not disposed of through plea bargaining or dismissal of the charges, the case will go to trial. Trial may be before a judge or a jury. In jury trials the defendant will assist the attorney in picking a jury. In jury trials, the jury decides whether the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did in fact commit the crime accused of. In many cases, in addition to the crime charged the jury may be allowed to determine whether the defendant is guilty of some lesser included offense. The jury decides factual issues, the judge decides legal issues. Jury verdicts must be unanimous. If there is no jury, the judge decides both factual and legal issues.
A defendant and his or her lawyer will determine what information needs to be presented to the court or jury. Information may be presented through testimony, documents and other information in various forms. The defendant has the right to see the information the state wishes to present and will be allowed to question the state's witnesses.
The judge or jury will consider the testimony of witnesses, any documents and photos which are offered, any other information which is received as evidence, and in the case of a jury trial, any instructions given to them by the judge determining whether the defendant is guilty. The burden is on the state to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury or judge finds a defendant guilty, the court will then determine what the appropriate sentence will be. Juries do not determine sentences.
As a general rule sentencing will occur sometime after the verdict. This is because the defendant has a right to file post-trial motions. Post-trial motions include a motion for new trial or a motion for judgment of acquittal.
Assuming the court does not set aside the verdict or order a new trial, the court will sentence the defendant. In some cases the court will have a pre-sentence investigation to assist it in determining the appropriate sentence for the defendant. A party who is dissatisfied with the verdict or sentence may appeal the case to the Iowa Supreme Court. In certain cases, a defendant may also seek to have the sentence reconsidered within certain time limits.
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