Criminal Law
What is a felony and a midemeanor?

Crimes are classified as misdemeanors or felonies.

Misdemeanors are punishable by no more than one year in jail and are heard primarily by the district court of the jurisdiction where the crime took place. Vandalism, shoplifting, trespassing, prostitution, and drunk driving, if it is a first or second offense, are all examples of misdemeanors.

For felonies, a hearing will be held in the district court where the crime occurred. The district court will conduct a hearing called a preliminary hearing. If the district judge determines there is enough evidence, the case will be certified to circuit court for trial. If you are convicted of a felony you could be sentenced to prison for a period of one year to life and/or to pay a fine. Homicide, arson, rape, robbery and burglary are examples of felonies.

What happens if I am arrested?

A person, called a defendant, who is arrested for breaking a criminal law, is taken before a magistrate who may issue an arrest warrant and set bond for appearance in court. If the defendant cannot post the bond he may be incarcerated pending appearance in court. If bond is posted, he will remain free pending appearance at an arraignment. An arraignment usually occurs within 24 hours of the arrest or the first date the court sits after the arrest. The arraignment is held before a district court judge. During the arraignment the defendant is formally told what offense he is charged with, told his or her constitutional rights, and of the possible penalties. The defendant will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, bond may be reviewed, and a date for the next hearing will be scheduled.

The court may appoint an attorney to represent the defendant if the defendant is unable to afford an attorney. Defendants should ask the court if they qualify for court-appointed counsel.

Who is entitled to a court-appointed attorney?

In criminal cases, a defendant who is unable to afford an attorney has the right to court-appointed counsel if the offense charged may be punished by any period of time to be spent in jail or prison. The court will inquire into the Defendant' assets and income to determine whether he or she is qualified for a court-appointed attorney. If the defendant is convicted, he will be charged for fees of the attorney. The court will generally appoint a lawyer in cases involving a mentally ill or developmentally disabled person.

In all guardianship and committee cases, the court will appoint a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is a person appointed by the court to represent the best interest of a person under a disability. The court will appoint a guardian ad litem for a child in cases of abuse or neglect. The guardian ad litem must be an attorney.

What happens at a bail hearing?

A person, also known as a defendant, is brought before a magistrate when an arrest warrant has been issued for violation of a criminal law. The magistrate will conduct a pre-trial bail hearing resulting in four possible results. An arraignment is held later by a judge.

The four possible results from the bail hearing are as follows:

  1. 1. Recognizance - This is the defendant's written promise to appear in court on the date set and abide by the terms set by the magistrate. No monetary pledge, cash deposit or security by property or professional bondsman is required.
  2. 2. Unsecured Bond - This release pending court appearance is based on the defendant's written agreement to appear in court on the date set and abide by the conditions set by the magistrate. It is backed by an agreement by the defendant to forfeit money to the court if she or he does not appear in court on the date set.
  3. 3. Secured Bond - This is secured by either a cash deposit, a pledge of real or personal property, or a pledge by a compensated or non-compensated surety (third party) that the defendant will appear in court on the date set and abide by the conditions of the release. Any such security may be forfeited by the judge in the event the defendant does not appear in court on the date set.
  4. 4. Ineligible for Bail - The defendant is denied a release pending court appearance.
  5. Note: The bail decision by a magistrate may be appealed to a judge who will re-examine the evidence.

A violation of any agreement of release pending court appearance could result in the issuance of a Capias or Order to Show Cause why the release should not be revoked. A capias or show cause may also be issued by a judge for not appearing in court as agreed.

What is a magistrate?

A principle function of the magistrate is to provide an independent, unbiased review of complaints brought to the office by police officers, sheriffs, deputies, and citizens. Magistrate duties include determining probable cause for issuing arrest warrants and search warrants. In addition, the magistrate conducts bond hearings to set bail in instances in which an individual is charged with a criminal offense.

What is a grand jury?

The circuit 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 which involves or tends to promote criminal activity.


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