If you are under investigation, the criminal process has already begun. This article covers the typical stages of a criminal case in Texas.
One of the most common questions we get is, “What should I expect during a court setting?” If you have never been to a criminal court before (excluding traffic tickets) or if your only exposure has been through jury duty or television, you’ll probably be surprised to find out that there are many court settings before the accused has their so-called “day in court” − where an issue of guilt or legality is argued. In fact, you may have many criminal court settings where you do not talk to anyone other than your attorney or saying “present” when docket is called. The purpose of many of these settings is to ensure the court that everyone is actively working on the cases and to make sure the defendant is still around and in compliance with bond conditions. Below is a brief description of what to expect at each of your criminal court settings.
A criminal investigation may be prompted by a 911 call, an officer’s observations, an informant’s tip, or an allegation. During the course of the investigation, officers will look for evidence of a crime, and investigate possible suspects. The investigation may happen on-scene immediately after the report, or may take many days or weeks to be completed. A lead detective will be assigned to the case. The lead detective coordinates the investigative efforts and is responsible for directing the investigation. The detective can assign duties to other officers to complete. During the investigative phase, the detective may attempt to get a statement from you. Remember to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney before ever considering giving a statement to the police.
Further reading: What to do if you are stopped by the police.
Once the detective has completed the investigation, he will inform a magistrate through a sworn affidavit the reasons he believes an offense has occurred. The magistrate will review the affidavit to see if there is probable cause to believe that an offense occurred. If the magistrate determines probable cause exits, he will issue a warrant for the suspect’s arrest. After being arrested, the magistrate will inform the accused of the charges. This is called the arraignment.
The first court setting is often called the Initial Appearance. This is generally held in the magistrate court, but can also be held in the court where the case is filed. The Initial Appearance setting is important because it allows the court to confirm that the accused has a lawyer representing them in all pending cases. Courts also commonly advise you of, or add to, your bond conditions during the Initial Appearance.
Common bond conditions include:
Prior to an indictment on a felony case, your attorney may ask for an examining trial. A showing of probable cause requires the State of Texas to present such evidence that would lead a reasonably intelligent and prudent person to believe you have committed a crime. If the State fails to prove probable cause, our criminal defense attorneys will request that the court dismiss the charges against you. This process of requesting a probable cause determination is called an examining trial and it is a process you are absolutely entitled to. There may be strategic reasons to forego an examining trial.
After the suspect’s arrest, the lead detective will send the case over to the district attorney’s office. Attorneys in the Intake Division will review the cases to determine if the case will be accepted for prosecution. A case is presented when it is filed by an “information” (misdemeanor) or true-billed by a grand jury (felony).
Once a case is filed or presented to a court, the case may have any number of settings. In most counties, there are many types of pre-trial settings. Each setting will require different tasks that need to be accomplished.
Before we continue talking about criminal court settings, it is important to point out that not every county or court uses the same terms to describe settings. Some courts may call every setting a Status Conference. Others may never have a Motions Docket. This article cover the most common criminal court settings and nomenclature.
After the Initial Appearance, the next setting is called the Consultation Setting. If you have hired an attorney, the Consultation will be scheduled as soon as possible after the return of an indictment. If you have a court-appointed attorney, the Consultation occurs before the indictment is returned.
By the time of the Consultation Setting, the prosecutor should be prepared to make you a plea agreement offer. A plea agreement offer is basically the punishment you would get if you pled guilty to the charges rather than taking it to trial. By this setting, your attorney should have reviewed the prosecutor’s files and the plea agreement so he or she will can explain the offer to you.
If you accept the plea agreement, then you will fill out the “Written Plea Admonishment Document.” Once you complete that document, you can either go forward with the plea and sentencing, go forward on the plea but hold off on sentencing, or hold off on both the plea and the sentencing. If your case is un-indicted and you have reached an agreement but sentencing was not completed at the Consultation Setting, then you have to sign a “Waiver of Indictment and Acceptance of Plea Agreement Offer.”
If you do not accept a plea agreement at the end of the Consultation, then your case will be scheduled for more pre-trial settings and eventually an Evidence Exchange setting.
By the Evidence Exchange setting, the prosecutors must have gathered all of their evidence and provided it to the defense. The parties must disclose their evidence in a process called “discovery” by the end of this setting. If a plea agreement is made, a plea proceeding may be scheduled. If no plea agreement is made, then the case will be scheduled for a Motion Setting.
There are certain circumstances that may prompt your attorney to file motions with the court. For example, if your attorney believes that the procedures used to gather evidence from your case was unconstitutional, they can file a Motion to Suppress the evidence. If they have filed any motions, a hearing will be held on those motions at the Motion Setting. If a plea agreement is reached at this point, then the plea proceeding may be scheduled. If not, then the case will either be set for Trial or for a Status Conference depending on kind of case you have.
At the Status Conference, the parties are again encouraged to negotiate and come to an plea agreement. You can plead guilty at the conference regardless of whether the plea was negotiated, but after the conference is over, the court may refuse to take your negotiated guilty plea.
If you do not plead guilty at this setting, then you have to fill out a “Status and Trial Management” form along with a few additional forms. After the proper forms are completed, your case will finally be set for trial.
If a case is not resolved after the pre-trial settings, it is set for a trial. A person who is accused of committing a crime has the right to a trial by jury in Texas. For misdemeanors, this is a jury of six people. For felonies, it is a jury of twelve people.
In Tarrant County, the following state jail and third-degree offenses are expedited: