In the course of a normal criminal proceeding, there are several steps before getting to a trial. This process can take several weeks to several years, depending on the complexity of the case.
In Davidson County, Tenn., the steps are as follows:
Every case starts the same way. Police officers are called and asked to make a report. This step is known as the complaint. In the complaint, the police department or other investigating entity gathers information about a case to assess what has potentially happened and what has not happened. Cases at this point could either continue to investigation or end.
After receiving a complaint from the initial officer, other more specialized officers are then assigned the case. There are several types of specializations within each department. This process can take days, weeks or even months. The factors affecting the length of time include types of evidence, number of witnesses, number of potential defendants, and locations of potential crime scenes, among others. Again, at this stage, the case could either move to charges or the case could end.
Once police have gathered what they feel is enough evidence to prove that there is probable cause to make an arrest, charges are taken out. The burden of probable cause is a very low burden and not the same as what is required to convict someone of a crime. Charges taken by the police can be modified, reduced, enhanced, or dismissed. Once charges have been taken out, an arrest warrant or citation is issued.
Potential suspects who are represented by an attorney receive a call from the police to set up a time for the defendant to turn herself/himself in. If the defendant is not represented, he or she is often arrested without warning. During this time, the defendant has the right to remain silent and contact an attorney should he/she wish.
Bond allows a person charged to post an amount of money ensuring they will come to court. This amount can be reduced in a bond hearing. If the defendant cannot meet the bond requirements, he or she will remain in jail until court.
This is where a defendant has the opportunity to refute probable cause and is often the defense attorney’s first chance to hear what the police will eventually argue. The process where the District Attorney seeks to prove probable cause is called a preliminary hearing. Again, the burden at this point is probable cause that a crime occurred and the burden is very low. Should the prosecution be successful, the next step is the grand jury.
Comprised of community citizens who often serve a month or longer at a single time, the grand jury’s main function is to deliver what are known as true bills. The presentation to the grand jury is sealed. The only people allowed in the hearing are the District Attorney and the police officers he/she chooses to testify. Neither defense attorneys nor the defendant is allowed in this proceeding.
Once the DA has made a presentation, he/she must leave the room and the grand jury votes in secret.
If no true bill is returned, the case is over. If a true bill is returned, the case proceeds to criminal court by way of the true bill, which is now referred to as an indictment.
Once the indictment has been validated as a true bill by the grand jury, the case is docketed in criminal court. The criminal court process starts with a pleading of guilt or innocence. While most every indictment begins with a plea of not guilty, this plea may be changed if a plea negotiation is reached. During this process, the defense is allowed to request discovery. This evidence may be enough to result in a plea negotiation or may result in a trial. If an agreement cannot be reached, the result is a trial.
Both sides take turns selecting the jury panel. The jury is sworn to uphold the law and the District Attorney is charged with proving his/her case beyond a reasonable doubt. If there exists a reasonable doubt in the case presented, the jury must find the defendant not guilty.
Another option: Direct presentment
It is possible that depending on the nature of the case, the District Attorney may recommend a direct presentment, which follows the above steps but skips the process of General Sessions (preliminary hearing). This means the case is sent directly to the grand jury. If a “true bill” is returned by the grand jury, the case will be docketed for criminal court. At this point, the defense will have an opportunity to request discovery and view the evidence the prosecution would likely present at trial.