Criminal Procedure: FAQ

I’ve Been Charged With a Crime, Do I Have a Right To an Attorney?

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution gives all individuals accused of a crime in a state court the right to have the court provide an attorney. If you cannot afford to pay for an attorney yourself, the court will provide one for you as long as you are facing criminal charges and time in custody (jail time).

You have the right to a court-appointed attorney even if your sentence results in a fine rather than no jail time. It also does not make a difference how long the imprisonment is, as long as you are facing jail or prison time. Because of these factors, you won’t have the right to counsel in cases such as traffic violations because these are usually misdemeanors that do not result in jail time.

Can You Represent Yourself in Court?

If the court determines that you are competent, you might be able to represent yourself in court. The court will consider whether you understand the proceedings, as well as things such as your age and level of education. However, representing yourself is usually not recommended and is often considered a bad idea.

What Is a Grand Jury?

The court has the authority to impanel grand juries. A grand jury is composed of five to seven citizens convened to consider whether there is probable cause to believe that the person accused has committed the crime charged in the indictment and should stand trial. The grand jury also investigates and reports on any condition that involves or tends to promote criminal activity.

What Is a Plea Bargain?

plea bargain is an agreement where a criminal case is settled between a prosecutor and defendant. In a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the charges in exchange for some agreement from the prosecutor as to the sentencing. For example, in some cases, the prosecutor might agree to charge the defendant with a lesser crime or dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea. The vast majority of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains.

What Are My Options After the Arraignment?

Usually, after the arraignment, you will either meet with your court-appointed attorney or you will select a private attorney. You will usually have a month or so before your next court appearance. At that appearance, you will either enter into a plea agreement with the prosecutor or you will set the matter for trial.

What Is a Jury Trial?

In a jury trial, the jurors, typically 12 in a criminal case, decide any disputed issues of fact. The judge determines all questions of fact. The jurors are selected by a process called voir dire, where the judge or parties ask the potential jurors questions in order to determine their biases and opinions.

What Is a Bench Trial?

A bench trial is a trial that is conducted by a judge. Usually, there is no jury. Cases that are tried before a judge without a jury are called a “bench trial.” Bench trials are common in civil lawsuits, but a criminal defendant can also agree to a bench trial. Juries are usually present in criminal trials.

What Is a Hung Jury?

A hung jury is a jury that is unable to come to an agreement on a verdict. The number of votes in favor of a certain verdict depends upon the state and may even depend on the type of trial. If a jury comes back with a hung jury, the judge may ask the jury to deliberate again, in the hopes of the jury coming to an agreement on the verdict. However, sometimes there is too strong a difference of opinion among the jury members, so the judge must declare a mistrial. If there is a mistrial, the case may be retried.

Who Can Be a Judge?

A judge is a person who presides over a court of law. The judge has usually practiced law for a significant amount of time before being either elected or named to serve as a judge. Many times, an attorney will serve as a judge for small or administrative matters.

Can Anyone View a Trial?

Generally yes, most trials are open to the public. This is because the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution establishes the right to a public trial. It is rare for a trial to be closed to the public unless the government can show a good reason.

Some of the reasons a trial might be closed to the public include the safety of the people involved in the proceeding, especially if the trial includes people in organized crime. Sometimes, a trial might be closed to the public to protect the privacy of victims and witnesses, such as in rape cases.

A trial might also be closed to the public when children are involved, to protect the child, except when the child is being tried as an adult. There might be an exception to a public trial in sexual exploitation and pornography cases, and in cases with sensitive information such as espionage and those with trade secrets.

What Is a Stenographer or Court Reporter?

A court reporter or stenographer is someone who transcribes or writes down all testimony, arguments and rulings as they take place in the courtroom. The document they write is called a “transcript” and is important for potential appeals. While they might seem similar, there are some differences between a stenographer and a court reporter.

Stenographers can usually transcribe for doctors and other fields such as TV captioning. Court reporters specialize in stenography and usually require additional training and certifications so that their transcripts are admissible as court evidence. Another difference is that court reporters are required to learn additional legal terms and processes, especially for court.

What Is a Sentencing Hearing?

Except for minor offenses, such as infractions, a sentencing hearing is held where the final sentence or penalty is determined. The law gives the judge a great deal of leeway in determining the sentence. The character of and circumstances surrounding the defendant can be as important as the severity of the crime in determining the sentence that is imposed.

The sentence is imposed after the jury or judge has provided the judgment. At the sentencing hearing, both the prosecution and the defense are given the opportunity to present evidence and testimony to recommend an appropriate sentence. The judge is free to ignore these recommendations, even if the prosecutor and defense lawyer have agreed to a sentence as a part of a plea agreement.

What Happens If You Lose a Trial?

If you lose your trial and there was an error in procedure, law or facts, you may be able to appeal your case to a higher court. However, not every case may be appealable, depending on the type of case and the state the person is in. Further, the issues that are appealable are limited; you don’t automatically get a chance of a new trial.

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