5 Steps of the Criminal Justice System

If you have been charged with a criminal violation and are thinking about retaining my services, let me assure you that I will do everything within my power to provide you with the highest quality legal representation. For those of you who are family members or friends of an individual who has been charged with a criminal violation, allow me to encourage you to lend your support to the person charged. The criminal justice system can be very trying and difficult to understand. There are five basic steps in the criminal justice system. Not every case will travel the same road. I can explain to you about your particular case, and where it is likely headed. The five (5) basic steps of a criminal proceeding are the:

  • Arrest
  • Preliminary hearing
  • Grand jury investigation
  • Arraignment in Criminal Court
  • Trial by jury

While not all cases are the same, what follows is a general description of the 5 basic steps that will happen in most cases if they proceed all the way to a jury trial. If this seems confusing, or doesn’t seem to apply to you or your case, feel free to discuss this with me.

1. Arrest

Step one is the arrest. Some of you have already been arrested by some police organization. You have been taken to jail and either posted bail, been released on pre-trial release, or you remain in custody. If you remained in custody, at some point you were brought before a “judicial commissioner”. The commissioner placed you under oath, advised you what you have been charged with, and asked you about your ability/intentions to hire an attorney to represent you. You indicated to the Commissioner an intention to hire an attorney.

Your arrest was, of course, the first of the five steps of the criminal justice process. When you were taken before the commissioner, that was a process called an “initial appearance” or sometimes it is called an “arraignment”. At that arraignment, the commissioner should have explained to you the offense you have been accused of committing. Additionally, the commissioner should have reviewed the bond set in your case and reviewed any conditions of release that have been imposed

2. Preliminary hearing

Step two is called the preliminary hearing. The preliminary hearing will be conducted by one of five Sessions Court judges. The court you will go to depends on the offense you have been charged with violating. There is a separate Sessions Court for individuals charged with driving under the influence of an intoxicant (sometimes called DUI or DWI). There is a separate court for individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses. A misdemeanor offense is any offense that carries less than 1 year in jail as potential punishment. And finally, there is a separate Sessions Court for individuals who have been charged with committing a felony offense. A felony offense is an offense where an individual, if convicted, could be sentenced to 1 year or more in jail.

What happens in Sessions Court depends on a number of factors all unique to your case. I can discuss these factors with you privately and in detail during an initial consultation. However, what follows is some basic information that may help you understand and, consequently, contribute in a meaningful way to a favorable resolution in your case.

I employ a holistic, client-centered representation model, meaning I take an interdisciplinary approach to my representation that includes a forensic social worker to assist clients address social, economic and environmental factors that are adversely impacting my clients’ lives. If you think you have a drug or alcohol problem, we have a forensic social worker who can conduct an assessment. We can do it privately, and confidentially, at my office. No one but you and I and the assessment counselor will know what was discussed. In the event you have a need, and interest in treatment, our forensic social worker can recommend the appropriate treatment plan and, with your permission, will attempt to make arrangements to get you entered in the right program. These treatment programs will consider your financial and work situations.

Following your arrest, I will be preparing your case for what is referred to as the preliminary hearing–the second of 5 stages of the criminal process. A preliminary hearing is sometimes called a ‘probable cause hearing.’ Following this hearing, a general sessions court judge will determine if probable cause exists to believe that an offense was committed and that you were the individual who committed that offense. This “standard” is different from what the state will have to prove at the 5th stage of the process, the trial before a jury. Since the “legal standard” is only probable cause, often my strategy at this stage is different from the strategy I’ll employ in criminal court. Defendants almost never testify at the preliminary hearing. Additionally, it is the rare case that the defendant calls any witnesses to testify at the preliminary hearing. That doesn’t mean I don’t want – and need – to know who those witnesses are, and what they know about your case.

3. Grand Jury

In the event your case is not concluded in Sessions Court, your case will proceed to the Grand Jury.

The Grand Jury is the third stage of the criminal proceeding. They are a group of people who meet in secret, neither you nor I will know when they meet to discuss your case, nor will you or I be allowed to attend state grand jury proceedings. The Grand Jury will hear only from the individuals subpoenaed by the sheriff at the request of the District Attorney’s office. The Grand Jury makes the same “probable cause” determination; made by a Sessions Court judge, that is: is there probable cause to believe an offense was committed and is there probable cause to believe you committed that offense. Since the Grand Jury only hears state’s witnesses, it should come as no surprise to you that the Grand Jury returns indictments against nearly every person charged with a criminal violation.

The Grand Jury returns what is called an indictment. It becomes the new charging instrument, replacing the warrant in your case. The Grand Jury is not bound by the charges that were initially brought against you. In other words, the Grand Jury can increase the severity of the charges against you or add new charges. The Grand Jury can also enhance the charges against you. Once the Grand Jury returns an indictment against you, you will be notified by mail by the Criminal Court Clerk’s office when and where to appear in Criminal Court for your arraignment; the fourth stage of a criminal process. The clerk will send notification to you in the form of a post card in the mail sent to the address listed on your arrest warrant.

It is very important to you that the clerk’s office has an accurate address to notify you. Otherwise, you will not be informed of your arraignment and the Criminal Court judge will issue an arrest order for your failure to appear at your arraignment. The Criminal Court Clerk is Mike Hammond. His mailing address is City/County Building 400 Main Street Knoxville, TN 37902. https://www.knoxcounty.org/criminalcourt/

4. Arraignment

At your Criminal Court arraignment, the judge will want to confirm that you know what action the grand jury has taken in your case, and will confirm that you have legal representation. The judge will set your case on the court’s docket.

5. Trial by jury

It is in criminal court where you have an opportunity to have a jury trial; the fifth stage of the criminal proceeding. At this stage, you and I will be able to tell your side of the story. Through cross-examination of the state’s witnesses, witnesses called in our case-in-chief, and, possibly, through your own testimony, the jury will have the opportunity to hear your defense.