If you have been arrested and charged with a crime or are being investigated for a crime you may have no idea what, when, or how the criminal case against you will move forward. You may have many questions, like: "What happens at the trial?" ; "How do I know if I have been charged with a crime?" ; "What is the next step?" ; "Can my case get dismissed?" ; "Can I make a plea bargain?". It is important for you to understand the basic anatomy of a criminal case so that you can mount the best defense possible and so that, hopefully, you can gain some peace of mind by knowing where you are in the criminal justice process. Although it is great to be informed, if you have have been charged with a crime or are being investigated for one, then you should seriously consider hiring a Houston criminal defense lawyer to help secure your rights to the fullest extent possible and to avoid the many possible missteps that can occur by representing yourself in this complicated process.
Law Enforcement Investigation
The first step in charging someone with a crime is the investigation by law enforcement officers. Law enforcement must have probable cause that you have committed a crime before they can arrest you. There are various ways that police officers, looking for probable cause, can conduct a criminal investigation, including, but not limited to: interrogations, witness interviews, search warrants, and the seizure of property. Once probable cause exists then an arrest will be made. It is worth offering a word of caution, if you are being investigated for a crime then don't wait until you have been arrested to hire a criminal defense lawyer. Having a lawyer in your corner during the investigation stage can have a significant impact on the outcome of your case later on.
After law enforcement officers feel that they have probable cause that you have committed a crime then they will arrest you. After your arrest you will be taken to a jail or other holding facility and you will go through the booking process. During the booking you will have your fingerprints and your photograph taken and you will most likely be asked to submit to some form of questioning by police. It is wise that you remain silent and make it clear that you would like to have an attorney present before you submit to any form of questioning. It is your constitutional right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during police questioning.
Initial Appearance the Arraignment and Setting of Bail
The arraignment is the first court appearance that you and your lawyer, if you hired one, will make in the case and it is at this time that the formal criminal charges will be filed against you. This hearing is very brief and the judge will confirm your identity and inform you of the charges and take your plea to the crime. The three possible pleas are not guilty, guilty, and no contest. Most defendants plea not guilty at this phase so that there is time for their attorney to conduct an investigation and mount a defense to the crime charged. If you plead guilty at the arraignment then you will move to sentencing. At your arraignment hearing the judge will set your bail allowing you the opportunity to get out of jail while the process moves forward. You will also get another future court date that you must attend.
Pretrial Hearings and Plea Bargains
All phases of the criminal justice process are very important, but this stage in the prosecution and defense of crimes can have a profound impact on how your case ends. Almost all criminal cases end in a plea bargain and never go to trial. During pretrial hearings your attorney and the prosecutor will talk about the strengths and weaknesses in the case against you. They will also talk about whether you have a previous criminal record, your character, and any reasons that you may have had for committing the crime if you did. Your lawyer may also choose to file certain pretrial motions. The prosecution and the defense may agree to dismiss the case, a certain sentencing, or pleading guilty to a lesser charge. What happens during these discussions with the defense and the prosecutor rely heavily on the facts and circumstances that surround your specific criminal case. If no plea bargain is reached then the case will proceed to trial.
After pleading not guilty then the case proceeds to trial where a jury or judge will decide after examining the testimony, argument, and evidence, whether they believe beyond a reasonable doubt that you have committed the crime. The length of the trial can vary widely depending on the complexity of the case. A typical criminal jury trial begins with the selection of the jury. Each side has a particular number of peremptory challenges to potential jurors. A peremptory challenge is a challenge that can be made for no reason at all. Challenges to jurors for cause are made when a potential juror has some reason why they cannot hear and decide the facts of the case fairly. After the jury has been selected then the prosecutor will put on their presentation of the case including, but not limited to, witness testimony, camera footage, and any other relevant evidence they have. After that the defense will put on their presentation and try to show why the prosecution's case is a weak one. This can happen by cross examining witnesses for the prosecution, examining defense witnesses, and presenting evidence that negates guilt. After all of that, the prosecution and the defense will make closing arguments and the judge or jury will then deliberate as to guilt or innocence.
If the judge or jury finds you not guilty then your case comes to an end. If you are found guilty and convicted of the crime charged then the sentencing phase begins. During the sentencing phase the judge will consider your character, whether you feel any remorse, your past criminal history, and all of the circumstances surrounding the case including, but not limited to the severity of the crime committed. In general, judges use pre set guidelines to determine what particular sentences should be.
If you have been found guilty and sentenced for a crime then you are entitled to at least one appeal of the verdict to a higher court. In Texas, the Court of Appeals, the first level of appellate courts will examine the case to see if there have been any procedural mistakes that have been made and this appellate court may overturn the decision of the lower trial court.
This is just a basic outline of the criminal court process in Texas and is not to be construed as legal advice. If you have been charged with a crime then you should set up a consultation with a Houston criminal defense lawyer at the Law Office of Chad Zubi to help you mount a strong defense and avoid missteps in procedure along the way.
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