- Prosecuting Attorney
- What Happens During a Criminal Trial
- District Court Arraignment
District Court Arraignment
This is the first court appearance for any misdemeanor or felony. Once arrested and charged with a felony, the suspect appears in District Court for arraignment. The defendant is told what the charge(s) is (are) and the maximum penalty if convicted, and is advised of his constitutional rights to a jury or bench trial, appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, etc. The charging document is called a Complaint. The conditions and amount of bond are determined by the judge. In some cases - generally based on the nature of the charge - the Judge imposes conditions on the bond, such as no contact with the 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.
All further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the defendant is charged with a felony or misdemeanor.
At a misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty, plead not guilty, or stand mute (i.e., remain silent, which is treated by the court as if the defendant pled not guilty). If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, the Judge may sentence the defendant on the spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence report including background information about the defendant and the crime, make a sentencing recommendation, or to give the victim a chance to come to the sentencing and to speak directly to the Judge, if desired. If the defendant stands mute or pleads not guilty, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
All misdemeanor cases are scheduled for a 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. The Judge and witnesses are not directly involved in misdemeanor pre-trial conferences. If a plea bargain is going to be offered by the Prosecutor, it is done here.
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 written "motions" (e.g., Motion to Suppress Evidence, etc.). 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 within 14 days of the arraignment. The arraigning judge may also consider a defendant's request for a court-appointed attorney at this time.
Some courts schedule a "Pre-Exam Conference" several days before the scheduled Preliminary Examination. The Pre-Exam Conference operates like a misdemeanor pre-trial conference, as a meeting between the Prosecutor and defendant (or his attorney) to see if the case can be resolved without the need to subpoena witnesses for the "Prelim".
Felony Preliminary Examination
This is a contested hearing before a District Court Judge, sometimes called a "probable cause hearing", held within 14 days after arraignment. The Prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the Judge that there is at least probable cause to believe that the charged crime(s) was (were) committed and that the defendant committed the crime(s). Because the burden of proof is much less than at a trial, the Prosecutor generally does not call all potential witnesses to testify at the "prelim"; generally, the victim and some eye witnesses plus some of the police witnesses testify. The defendant, through his attorney, can cross-examine the witnesses and present his own evidence (including witnesses). If probable cause is established, the defendant is "bound over" (i.e., sent to) Circuit Court for trial. If the Judge decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed the charged crime(s), the judge can bind the case over on different charges, can reduce the charges to misdemeanors for trial in District Court, or can dismiss charges. A defendant can give up his right to a Preliminary Examination.
Circuit Court Arraignment
After the case is sent to Circuit Court, the defendant is again arraigned (given formal notice of the charges against him or her). 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). In Berrien County this procedure occurs immediately after the Preliminary Examination this is often the point when a defendant pleads guilty after plea negotiations.
The Circuit Court may schedule a 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.
The Circuit Court Judge may be called upon to resolve various pre-trial issues, some of which determine whether the case will continue to a trial, be resolved with a plea, or be dismissed; whether evidence will be admissible at trial; etc.