Criminal Case Process
This outline is how a typical criminal case progresses through the criminal justice system in the State of Michigan (USA). If you are in a different state or country, criminal cases may be handled very differently because procedures and terms vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Please consult your local prosecuting authority to learn how your local case would be handled.
Crime Committed & Police Notified
Most reported crimes are investigated by the local police, the county sheriff or the state police. A few types of crime (e.g, criminal non-support, public health related crimes, etc.) may be investigated by other agencies.
Investigation may include:
- Interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects
- Collecting physical evidence
- Visiting, viewing, photographing, and measuring the crime scene
- Identifying suspects through line-ups
Police Make an Arrest (or Request Issuance of a Complaint)
When a crime is committed in a police officer's presence, or he has probable cause to believe that certain misdemeanors or any felony was committed that he did not see happen, an officer may arrest a suspect on the spot without an arrest warrant. The officer will later submit a charging/warrant request to the Prosecuting Attorney, suggesting potential charges to be authorized.
Charging Request Reviewed by Prosecuting Attorney
Most cases begin with a warrant request. This is generally the first time that the Prosecuting Attorney is involved in a case, unless he reviewed a search warrant or visited the crime scene. At this stage, the Prosecuting Attorney determines whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what the crime should be. (Prosecutors issue criminal charges, not police - unless a crime can be issued on an appearance ticket.)
The Prosecuting Attorney should thoroughly review all reports and records concerning the case, including witness statements. The Prosecuting Attorney also reviews the suspect's prior criminal and/or traffic record. Occasionally, the reviewing Prosecuting Attorney sends the case back to the police to conduct additional investigation.
Complaint Issued by Prosecutor
The Prosecutor can issue a charge on a Complaint if he reasonably believes that probable cause exists that the suspect committed the offense. But, most Prosecuting Attorneys apply a higher standard - whether he reasonably believes that he can prove the charge beyond a reasonable doubt at trial with the information known at that time.
Warrant Issued by Court
The Complaint is filed in the District Court and signed under oath by an officer from the investigating police department. (The crime victim does not sign the complaint. The crime victim does not "issue charges.") For felony complaints, the law enforcement office provides sworn testimony to a magistrate or judge supporting probable cause evidence that the felony crimes were committed by the named defendant. The magistrate or judge then signs an arrest warrant, in order to bring the defendant before the court.
Suspect Arrested (If Not Already in Custody)
The delay between the crime date and the defendant's arrest on an authorized charge can take any length of time, especially if the defendant's whereabouts are unknown, or if he/she has left the State of Michigan.
District Court Arraignment
This is the first court appearance for every misdemeanor or felony. The defendant is told by the judge or magistrate what the charge(s) is/(are) in the charging document (the Complaint) and the maximum penalty if convicted, and is advised of his right to a jury or bench trial, right to an appointed attorney if indigent, right to a presumption of innocence, etc. The court determines whether a bond will be required, the amount of bond and bond conditions (e.g, "no contact" with the complaining victim). Bond is set in almost every case, but it is up to the defendant's own resources to post the bail money, which allows him to be released until the next court hearing.
All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor.
At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant enters a plea to the charge: guilty, not guilty, or stand mute (i.e, remain silent, which is treated by the court as if the defendant pled not guilty). If he pleads guilty or no contest, the Judge may sentence him on the spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date so the probation department has time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, etc. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
- Pretrial Conference: In traffic and non-traffic misdemeanor cases, this is the defendant's second court appearance. It is a scheduled meeting between an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and the defendant (or his attorney) to determine whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea. These meetings focus on resolving the case short of trial.
- Pretrial Proceedings: Many other events can occur prior to trial. Depending on the nature of the case, there may be pre-trial hearings on Constitutional issues (confessions, searches, identification, etc.). The issues are presented to the Court through a written "motion" (e.g, Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). For some motions, witness testimony is presented to the judge. The judge must determine whether evidence will be admitted or suppressed at the defendant's trial, whether there is some legal reason why the defendant should not be tried, or decide other ground rules for trial.
At a felony arraignment in District Court, the defendant does not plead guilty or not guilty. He is advised of his right to a preliminary examination. The court reviews requests for court-appointed attorneys at the arraignment.
- Probable Cause Conference (PCC): A probable cause conference must be scheduled between 7 and 14 days after the arraignment date. At a PCC, the prosecutor and defense must discuss possible plea agreements, discuss bail, discuss stipulations or other agreements regarding the case, etc. After the PCC, the parties must notify the court if a preliminary examination will be held or waived, or if a plea will be entered. A preliminary examination is supposed to be scheduled between 5 and 7 days after the PCC date. If the victim is present at the PCC and the preliminary examination is not waived, the victim's preliminary examination testimony may be taken immediately (on the PCC date) at the prosecutor's request.
- Plea: Since 2014, a district court judge may take a guilty plea from a defendant who had been charged with a felony and a plea agreement had been reached at the PCC. However, after the plea, the case is sent to the circuit court for sentencing. The parties must be informed which circuit court judge would be assigned the case for sentencing before the plea is taken before the district court judge.
- Felony Preliminary Examination: This is a contested hearing before a District Court Judge or Magistrate, sometimes called a "probable cause hearing." A preliminary exam must be scheduled within 5 to 7 days after the Probable Cause Conference is held; however, if the victim is present at the PCC and the case was going to be scheduled for a Preliminary Examination hearing, the prelim could begin at the time of the PCC so the victim can testify then, without returning for another PCC hearing about a week later. Otherwise, the Prosecutor presents witnesses at the Preliminary Examination to convince the Judge that there is probable cause to believe that a felony crime was committed and that the defendant committed the crime. Because the burden of proof is much less than at a trial, the prosecutor generally does not call every potential trial witness at the "prelim"; generally, the victim and some eyewitnesses plus some of the police witnesses testify. The defense can cross-examine the witnesses and can present its own evidence (including witnesses). If probable cause is not proven (a rare occurrence), the felony charge can be dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor for trial in District Court. If probable cause is proven, the defendant is "bound over" (i.e, sent) to Circuit Court for further hearings, including possible trial. A defendant can decide not to have a Preliminary Examination. Most felonies arrive in Circuit Court after such a "waiver."
- Circuit Court Arraignment: After the case is sent to Circuit Court, the defendant is arraigned again, this time receiving formal notice of the charges against him or her after the District Court Preliminary Examination. The charging document is called an Information. He or she is again advised of his/her constitutional rights and enters a plea to the charge (guilty, not guilty or stand mute).
- Pre-Trial Conference: This is a Circuit Court meeting between an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney and the defendant's attorney to determine whether the case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea.
- Pretrial Proceedings: As with District Court misdemeanors, the Circuit Court Judge may be asked to resolve pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed.
Trial (Jury or Bench/Judge)
A trial is an adversarial proceeding in which the Prosecutor must present evidence to prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not required to prove his or her innocence, or to present any evidence, but may always challenge the accuracy of the Prosecutor's evidence.
Both the defendant and the Prosecutor (representing the People of the State of Michigan) have the right to a trial by a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to the evidence and decide the case without a jury; this is called a "bench trial." In a jury trial, the jury is the "trier of fact"; in a bench trial, the judge is. After the evidence is presented, the judge or a jury will determine whether the evidence proved that the defendant committed the crime.
Provided is a general outline of the steps in a jury trial:
- Residents of Eaton County are randomly selected from a Secretary of State list of licensed drivers and are summoned to the Court as potential jurors.
- A blind draw selects twelve people from that group in felonies (six in District Court misdemeanors and Family Court jurisdictional trials).
- The judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney question the jurors about their backgrounds and beliefs ("voir dire");
the attorneys are permitted a limited number of "peremptory" challenges to various jurors (or an unlimited number of challenges for good cause).
- After twelve (or six) acceptable jurors remain, the judge administers an oath to the jury and reads basic instructions about the trial process, etc.
- The prosecutor gives an opening statement to outline his case and evidence to the jury.
- The defense may give a similar opening statement, or wait until later in the trial.
- The prosecutor calls witnesses, which the defense may cross-examine.
- The people close their proofs.
- The defense may call witnesses, and the prosecutor may cross-examine them.
- The defense rests.
- The prosecutor may present "rebuttal" witnesses/evidence to challenge evidence presented by the defendant during his proofs.
- The prosecutor rests.
- The prosecutor presents a closing summary to the jury.
- The defense attorney presents a closing summary to the jury.
- The prosecutor may present a rebuttal argument to the jury to respond to the defendant's attorney's closing summary.
- The judge gives the jury detailed legal instructions about the charged crimes, the deliberation process, etc.
- The jury deliberates and returns a unanimous verdict.
Pre-Sentence Investigation& Report
If the defendant is convicted by a plea or trial verdict, a probation department prepares a report for the judge summarizing the crime, and the defendant's personal and criminal backgrounds. The victim is contacted for a recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report with a recommended sentence.
Sentencing in Michigan varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge's discretion within the maximum penalties enacted by the legislature. The judge will consider the information in the pre-sentence report before determining the sentence. The parties may correct factual errors in the pre-sentence report and offer additional evidence relevant to the judge's sentencing decision.
For certain felony crimes, the judge will consult the "sentencing guidelines" to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence. (The Guidelines are established by the Michigan Legislature and Supreme Court to frame an appropriate sentence throughout the state, considering factors of the crime and the defendant's criminal background.) The judge may consider different alternatives, such as a:
- Community Service
- Sentence to Jail or Prison
The judge must also order the defendant to pay full restitution to any victims who have directly suffered financial harm from the conviction crimes.
Appeals from the District Court are heard in the Circuit Court. Appeals from a Circuit Court or Probate Court order are heard in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Appeals from Court of Appeals decisions are heard in the Michigan Supreme Court. There are three kinds of appeals: interlocutory, of right, and by leave.
- Interlocutory appeal: when a party tries to appeal a judge's decision before the case has come to trial or before a trial is finished.
- Appeal of right: after a final order has been entered by the trial court (either a sentencing order or an order dismissing the charge). The Michigan Constitution has eliminated most appeals of right when a defendant pleads guilty. Most appeals of right now focus on the sentence imposed.
- Appeal by leave of the court: when an appeal of right is not available (e.g, because an available appeal of right was not filed on time). The appellate court has the discretion to reject the appeal or can "grant leave."
If the appellate court grants leave to appeal, the defendant and prosecutor file briefs that summarize the case facts, frame the legal issues to be decided, and present persuasive written arguments (supported by constitutional, statutory or prior case decision authority). Either party can request that the case be scheduled before the appellate court judges for oral argument. The appellate court will eventually issue a written opinion (or several opinions, if the justices disagree). Not all appellate opinions are "published" (i.e, printed in official "reporter" services, such as Michigan Reporter or Michigan Appellate Reporter). The legal analysis and conclusions in published opinions are given greater precedent authority than "unpublished" opinions.