If you are like many people charged with a crime, this may be your first time facing criminal charges. You may have never been in a courtroom before. The possible consequences if you are convicted can be terrifying. However, understanding what will happen during your court case can lessen some of the fear of the unknown and give you a better idea of what to expect.
How a Criminal Case Begins in North Carolina
The criminal process begins with your arrest. You could be arrested immediately if the police have probable cause to suspect that you committed a crime. Criminal charges can also be brought against you by the police officer issuing a citation, such as a traffic ticket or a warrant being signed by a judge or magistrate authorizing your arrest.
Once you are arrested, you will be brought before a magistrate who will set the terms of your release, if this is granted. You will be required to sign a written promise to return for all court hearings and may be required to pay a bond. Other conditions could apply. What happens next will depend on whether you are being charged with a misdemeanor or felony.
What Happens in a Misdemeanor Court Case?
When you are charged with a misdemeanor, your case will be heard in the District Court. This is what could happen in your case:
- First hearing. You can have an attorney present at your first hearing and should retain one to represent you. At this hearing, the charges against you will be read, and you will enter your plea to the charges against you—guilty, not guilty, no contest, or stand mute.
- Pre-trial procedures. During this phase in your case, your attorney will investigate the charges against you, obtain discovery of the evidence against you from the prosecutor, and build your defense. Depending on the issues in your case, pre-trial motions could be filed by the prosecutor or your attorney. In addition, your attorney may enter into negotiations with the prosecutor to enter into a plea agreement.
- Trial. If your case is not dismissed or you do not enter into a plea bargain, your case will go to trial. Misdemeanor trials are heard before a judge, not a jury, in North Carolina.
What Can You Expect in Court Proceedings When You Are Charged With a Felony?
When you are facing felony charges, your criminal case will be more complicated and involve additional court hearings. Your case will start with hearings in District Court and then be transferred to Superior Court. Here’s what happens at the District Court level:
- First hearing. At this hearing, the charges against you and the maximum sentence is explained to you. You have a right to have an attorney present at this hearing.
- Preliminary setting. This is the preliminary discovery period where your attorney can review the evidence against you that the prosecutor possesses and begin an investigation into your case.
- Pre-trial negotiations. While engaging in discovery and at various points throughout your court case, your attorney may discuss your case with the prosecutor in an effort to get the charges dismissed or negotiate a plea agreement.
- Probable cause hearing. If your case does not settle, your next hearing will be a probable cause hearing where the prosecutor presents evidence showing that there is probable cause for the case to proceed. Your attorney will have the opportunity to listen to witness’ testimony and cross-exam any witnesses as well as evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case against you. If the judge finds that probable cause has been established, your case will continue. If not, the case would be dismissed.
- Grand Jury. If the judge finds probable cause exists, your case is sent to the grand jury, where a bill of indictment will most likely be issued.
Once these steps have been completed, your case will move to Superior Court, which is the higher court in North Carolina. You can expect the following:
- Arraignment. At this hearing, you enter your plea to the charges against you.
- Motions and settlement conferences. Once your case is in Superior Court, there is an additional period of discovery and investigation and the opportunity to file motions and attend settlement conferences. For example, if the police illegally obtained evidence against you, your attorney could file a motion to suppress the evidence. In addition, your lawyer will most likely continue to try to negotiate a settlement of your case.
- Trial. If you are unable to enter into an acceptable plea agreement, your case has not been dismissed by the judge, or you decide to fight the charges, your case will go to trial before a judge or jury. It is still possible to enter into a plea agreement right before or during the trial process. Otherwise, the judge or jury will make a finding as to your guilt.
- Sentencing. Unless the charges against you are dismissed, you will attend a sentencing hearing in both misdemeanor and felony cases where the judge will set the terms of your sentence. Your attorney can advocate for you at that hearing for the lowest allowable penalties.
Understanding what will happen and why your attorney is taking certain steps in your case is important to taking the mystery out of a criminal case and enable you to make informed decisions on how you should proceed. At Browning & Long, PLLC, we are committed to keeping you informed of the steps in your criminal case and explaining our strategies to fight the charges against you. To start learning about your options, call our office to schedule a free case evaluation.