Process and Stages of a Criminal Case in Florida

This section explains the different stages of a criminal case.

Once a person is arrested and accused the first encounter with the criminal system of justice is the initial appearance.

Initial Appearance

In Central Florida this hearing generally occurs in a specialized court in jail. There, a judge will simply inform the accused of the allegations and the crimes against you. The idea behind this hearing is to allow the accused learn the crimes against him or her, in order to prepare a defense against such charges. This stage is considered a critical stage of a criminal case and therefore, the accused is entitled to be represented by competent counsel. People in the criminal justice system commonly refer to this hearing as the “IA.”

Probable Cause Hearing

In Central Florida the probable cause hearing is done in conjunction with the Initial Appearance. During the Probable Cause hearing (PC) the judge will read either the police affidavit, or the affidavit to issue a warrant, specifically the narrative of the police officer. While doing such reading, the judge will simply see if the alleged facts match the elements of the crime against you. As you can see Probable Cause for the purposes of this hearing is such a low standard.

Arraignment

Next in order is the arraignment hearing. At this hearing, a judge will formally read you the charges against you. Generally speaking, the State will convey an offer to resolve the case. Whether the offer is fair, reasonable, or practical for your situation should be addressed between you and your lawyer. Nonetheless, you are entitled to not accept the offer and declare yourself not guilty. If that is your decision, the case will continue its logical process into the next stage. However, if you would like to accept the offer from the State, the case will finish right there. In order for you to accept the offer you must declare yourself as “guilty” or “no contest.” In essence, “Guilty” means that you acknowledge and accept and doing the accusations against you. On the other hand, “no contest” means that you are not admitting any guilt but you simply agree with the offer and desire to conclude the case in exchange the terms of such offer. After going through the plea colloquy the judge will sentence you. The terms of the sentence imposed by the judge will be those terms of the offer that you voluntarily agreed upon with the State.

If you have an attorney you can avoid attending this particular hearing. Pursuant to rule 3.160 of Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure one can waive his right to an arraignment if done by counsel, in writing, timely, and the accused must enter a not guilty plea in writing.

Pre-Trial Conference

If you are at a Pre Trial Conference (PTC) it means that you either did not receive an offer at the arraignment hearing, or you did receive an offer but decided not to accept it. During the PTC hearing the judge will expect you and your attorney to provide some information about the plans of your legal strategy. Although it may sound complicated, what the judge really needs to know at the PTC is whether you plan on accepting a plea offer, whether you need a continuance, or whether your plan is to set the case for trial. During this hearing, depending on your request the judge will either grant or deny it. Despite the ruling of the judge, the clerk will still tell you your next court date. The clerk at that courtroom will provide all necessary paperwork with all details about your next court hearing.

If you have an attorney you can avoid attending this particular hearing. Pursuant to rule 3.180 of Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure one can waive his appearance at a PTC if done by counsel, in writing, timely, and with the commitment of the defense counsel to attend such hearing on behalf of the accused.

Status Hearing

Not all judges allow status hearings, however, these hearings are useful and practical. Often times, at this stage there is not a clear decision on whether the case will certainly go to trial or not. Sometimes, the State has not delivered the demanded discovery due to different reasons, however, if such discovery becomes available the decision moving forward can be dramatically different. Meaning, that the judge will ask the parties to come to court for a status hearing to discuss any plans or status on issues to determine whether the case is certainly going to trial or whether any newly acquired discovery will assist in resolving the case with a plea offer.

Trial

Going to trial is a constitutional right. During this hearing the accused will have his/her day in court. At the conclusion of the trial the foreperson of the jury will either deliver the verdict or will hand it in writing to the clerk of the courtroom and he or she will read the verdict out loud. There is only a limited universe of possible outcomes at trial. These are: guilty, or not guilty. If you are found not guilty, you are therefore acquitted of the crimes charged against you and are to be released from custody immediately. On the other hand, if you are found guilty, you must remain in custody. Depending in the nature and level of the crime the judge will either enter a sentence after the jury is excused or you would remain in custody and come for a sentencing hearing at a later day. Another possible outcome at trial is a mistrial. A mistrial can occur because of a hung jury; meaning that the jury was not unanimous in deciding the verdict. A mistrial can also be determined by the judge because of some illegality during the celebration of the trial

Appeal

After a criminal conviction is entered by the court, one has 30 days to appeal the sentence of the judge. You only have 30 days to appeal despite your case is a misdemeanor or a felony. In order to do so correctly, you must appeal in writing. To commence such action you must file a notice of appeal. Along, such notice your attorney will also request the record of the case, and order the transcripts from the trial court.