What Happens After My Case is Filed in Court?
By Kristi Tyler
Perhaps you or a loved one have endured an arrest and a long wait to see if a case would be filed against you. Then, you receive a notice to appear in court. You may be wondering: What happens now? How long will this take? What can I expect from this process?
First, resolving your case can take some time. Be prepared for this from the beginning. Although it can happen, it is rare that everything is handled at your first court appearance. You can expect this process to go on for several months.
Second, it is always wise to have legal counsel with you every step of the way. If you have not already hired an attorney, now is the time to do so. Your attorney will want to be involved in your case from the very beginning. It is important that you feel comfortable with the attorney you hire, because you will spend many months working together.
Third, appear at your very first court date. This first court date is called your “First Appearance.” This is an order – your appearance is not optional. If you do not appear, a warrant can be issued for your arrest.
If you have an attorney, you will not have to go it alone–your attorney will appear with you in court. If you have not hired an attorney, you can ask to complete paperwork to see if you qualify for a court-appointed attorney. This request is based primarily on your income and household expenses.
So, you are dressed for court, you made it to the courthouse, and you located your attorney. Now what? The answer is “not much.” In most cases, you will not even step foot in the court room. At this First Appearance, your attorney will receive “Discovery,” in your case. Discovery consists of the information that the prosecuting attorney has in your file, such as a police report, a lab report, and a copy of video or audio files related to your arrest or investigation. The prosecutor will also give your attorney a “plea offer,” which tells you and your attorney what punishment the prosecution is seeking in your case: probation, jail time, or prison time.
Then, you and your attorney will sign a “Pass Slip” that sets your case for another court date. Courts typically set these dates about a month apart. Your next appearance will be called an “Announcement.” Most courts allow several “Announcement” settings, each about a month apart. Then, you must set your case for either a plea or a trial. By this time, it will likely be several months after your first court appearance.
Check with your attorney about whether your appearance is required at each setting. Some courts will require your appearance at every court setting, while other courts will allow your attorney to appear for you.
Once you and your attorney have had a chance to review the Discovery in your case, and discuss the plea offer, you must decide to set your case for a plea or a trial.
Your attorney may also advise you to have a pre-trial hearing, such as a Motion to Suppress Evidence. If your attorney believes that there was not a legal basis to stop your car, search your person, or enter your home, he may suggest filing such a motion. Your attorney will get a hearing date, and you will be required to be present. If you win, you may be able to get your case dismissed. If you do not win, then you can appeal the court’s ruling or set your case for a plea or a trial.
If you set your case for a plea, you will need to appear for your plea date dressed to appear in front of the judge—that means no shorts and flip-flops. Your attorney will stand with you, and you will enter your plea. Most pleas are “agreed pleas,” meaning that you, your attorney, and the prosecutor agree on your punishment and you know what the punishment will be. If the court does not follow the agreement, you can withdraw your plea.
In some instances, your attorney may advise an “open plea,” where you enter a plea in front of the judge without an agreement. This is usually because you, your attorney, and the prosecutor have different thoughts on the appropriate punishment for your case. At the open plea, your attorney can call witnesses to testify, and might even call you as a witness.
At the end of your plea, you will receive your sentence and will either meet with a probation officer (if your punishment was probation) or be taken into custody (if your punishment was jail or prison time).
If you decide to set your case for jury trial, then the court will give you a trial date. Depending on the court, your trial date could be scheduled for a few weeks, to several months, down the road. Although it can happen, it is not likely that your case will to go to trial the very first time that it is set, especially if you are out on a bond.
Courts will give priority to defendants in jail, and then typically to the oldest case set for trial that day. Most courts can only hear one, or two, trials per week. However, many more than that may be set for trial. So, if your case does not go to trial, it will be reset for a future trial date—weeks, to months, in the future.
This process could occur several times before it is finally your turn to have a jury hear your case. Having a jury trial to clear your name, or raise a legal issue, may be the best move, but it will add time to the process. Be patient. You will have your day in court…it might just take a while.