If you are arrested for a crime, it’s easy to spiral into constant worry over what will happen at your trial. The good news is that the criminal process is fairly straightforward. Let’s take a look.
To understand the trial process, it is important to look at your state’s specific rules regarding criminal trials. There are 102 counties that operate autonomously in Illinois. This means that while there are state regulations regarding criminal proceedings, each county has the power to manage criminal cases without input from the state.
Think of the criminal justice system in your county as a small town – everyone is familiar with everyone else, and most people work within specific roles that contribute to the community as a whole.
- Local police, college, and municipal police departments keep an eye on the community and act on any threats to public safety. Their main job is to protect the community down to the most minute threat.
- The court clerks, county probation and court service departments keep things in order. They handle clerical and logistical tasks that keep the courts operating.
- Judges, attorneys, and public defenders are the faces of justice. They defend those accused of a crime, or in the judge’s case, determine whether the accused is guilty.
- The Illinois Department of Corrections is responsible for handling prisons, inmates, and former convicts on probation. Similar to a court clerk, the Department of Corrections oversees logistical concerns and keeps the prison system on track.
- County jails are almost like a local arm of the Illinois Department of Corrections. They provide localized services like holding petty criminals in custody.
- Private organizations and nonprofits offer crisis intervention assistance to the community in an effort to stop criminal activity and rehabilitate former felons.
These groups, institutions, and individuals share the responsibility of maintaining the wellbeing of the county and its residents. They also play a role at nearly every stage of the trial process.
The first step in the criminal court process is the arrest. An arrest triggers the court process that leads to a trial. Police officers can’t arrest you without cause, but there are two legal concepts that influence arrests: reasonable suspicion and probable cause.
- Reasonable suspicion means the officer suspects criminal activity. The officer is parked on a main thoroughfare, when they spot someone running down the sidewalk with a duffle bag. Shortly after, an alarm sounds, indicating a robbery. At this point, the officer has reasonable suspicion that the individual running down the sidewalk could be the one responsible for the robbery.
- Probable cause, however, depends on evidence. There must be concrete evidence for law enforcement to make an arrest due to probable cause. One common scenario where an officer may arrest someone on probable cause is a DUI. An officer notices a car speeding down the road and weaving in between the lanes and proceeds to pull the driver over for reckless driving. Once the window is down, the officer smells alcohol and notices empty beer cans in the passenger seat. The driver is clearly intoxicated with slurred speech and erratic behavior. According to probably cause, the officer is acting within the law if they arrest the driver for a DUI.
Once an officer arrests you, they will take you into custody and inform you of your rights. You have the right to:
- Remain silent
- An attorney
- Have an attorney present during police questioning
After taking you into custody, the case moves on to the prosecutor.
Police do not file charges – prosecutors do. Once you’ve been arrested, the prosecutor will evaluate the police report to determine if there was actually probable cause to arrest you. If they find that there is probable cause, they will file charges with the court. This process can take a few days, several weeks, or even years depending on the case.
Bond hearings take place in felony cases. At the hearing, the judge will read your rights and set a bail amount based on the severity of the crime. You can pay the bail amount, and avoid police custody until your trial. If you can’t pay, you’ll have to wait in a holding cell.
The preliminary hearing is different from the bond hearing in that the judge will hear evidence from the prosecution. All witnesses can be cross examined by the defense, and you can also submit your own witness testimonies. If the judge decides that there is no probable cause, your case will likely be dismissed.
A note about preliminary hearings: You are not guaranteed a preliminary hearing in every county.
You are officially informed of the charges against you at the arraignment. At this point, you can plead “guilty” or “not guilty” to the charges. In many cases, a “not guilty” plea will lead to a formal trial, but there is the opportunity for a plea deal.
Plea deals are often put on the table by the prosecution and they ask for a guilty plea in exchange for a shorter prison sentence. Most cases never go to trial thanks to plea deals, but avoiding a trial is not as important as ensuring that you receive justice. Never accept a plea bargain or issue a guilty plea without the counsel of a qualified attorney.
Criminal trials can happen in one of two ways, either the judge makes their decision from the bench (bench trial), or a jury weighs in on the case. Jury selection is a very long and complicated process because the court has to select jurors who are unbiased. Bench trials do not require a jury, so the trial moves on to opening statements
Once the jury has been chosen, the prosecution and defense will make their opening statements and begin presenting evidence. Eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, arresting officers, and forensic specialists may be called to the stand to testify during trial. Both the prosecution and defense can cross examine witnesses and present their own evidence.
After all the evidence has been presented, the jury will deliberate or, in a bench trial, the judge will decide the verdict. If the jury and/or judge find you not guilty of the crime, the case is dismissed. Otherwise, the judge will hand down the sentence, which often incudes prison time, fines, probation, and other punishments.
What to Do if You Are Accused of a Crime
If you are accused of a crime, you must speak to an attorney as soon as possible. The criminal process is incredibly complex, but a qualified trial lawyer can guide you through each step and advocate for you.
The Johnson Law Group has over 100 years of combined trial experience, and we have defended countless clients in criminal cases. From DUIs to murder, our attorneys have the experience and knowledge you need during a criminal trial.
Schedule a free initial consultation with Johnson Law Group today.