The Criminal Justice Process Explained

The Criminal Justice Process

 To an outsider, the criminal justice system may seem daunting. This guide describes, in general terms, how criminal cases are prosecuted in Blaine County,Idaho.

Criminal Justice Process
* graphic created by Chris Thompson, IA Dept. of Corr. 

A Crime is Reported - Most criminal cases begin with a report of a suspected crime being made to a law enforcement agency.  Sometimes, a suspect is arrested on scene.

The Crime is Investigated - Cases are investigated by a city police agency, the County Sheriff or the Idaho State Police.

A Charging Decision is Made - When a police officer or agency has probable cause to believe that a misdemeanor or felony has been committed, the case is referred to the City Prosecuting Attorney, if the crime alleges a misdemeanor or infraction within the City limits, or the County Prosecuting Attorney's office, if the crime alleges a felony, misdemeanor or infraction in the County, or is a juvenile matter.  The Prosecuting Attorney will then make the determination on whether charges should be filed.

Suspect Charged - A person suspected of a crime may be charged in one of two ways.  The first is through an official Complaint from the Prosecutor's Office filed with the court. The second is by convening a Grand Jury that makes a charging decision based upon the available evidence.  Once charged, the suspect is called the Defendant.

Arrest Made or Warrant/Summons Issued - Once it has been determined that there is probable cause to show that a crime was committed, the investigating agency makes an arrest of the Defendant, or the Courts will issue a warrant for the Defendant's arrest.  The Court may also issue a summons requiring the Defendant to appear in Court at a particular time and date.

Arraignment - A Defendant 's first court appearance is called an arraignment and at this hearing the Defendant is advised of their rights and is given an opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty. Also during the arraignment the Defendant is notified of the charges they face and what the penalty is for a conviction on those charges.  The Judge will also impose bail and conditions of release on the Defendant.

Court Hearings - After the arraignment, but before trial, there are several court hearings that may or may not occur, depending on the type and severity of the case. These hearings include Preliminary Hearings, Pre Trial Conferences, Motions Hearings, and other hearings as deemed necessary by the circumstances of the case. It is often during these hearings that plea agreements are negotiated and resolved.

Preliminary Hearing – A preliminary hearing is a hearing to determine if a person charged with a felony should be tried for the crime charged, based on the presentation of evidence that he/she committed the crime. A preliminary hearing is held in the lowest local court (magistrate) without a jury within days of the arraignment, but only if the Prosecutor has filed the charge without asking the Grand Jury for an indictment. If the judge finds sufficient evidence to try the Defendant, the case is sent to the district court for trial. If there is not enough evidence to support the charges, the judge will dismiss the case.

Pre-Trial Conference – A pre-trial conference is a meeting of the prosecutor and the defense attorney held before the court prior to the commencement of actual courtroom proceedings. Generally, the term pretrial conference is used interchangeably with the term pretrial hearing. A pretrial conference may be conducted for several reasons: (1) expedite disposition of the case, (2) help the court establish managerial control over the case, (3) discourage wasteful pretrial activities, (4) improve the quality of the trial, and (5) facilitate a settlement of the case.

Public Defender - Once arraigned, the Defendant may be appointed a Public Defender if they cannot afford an attorney on their own.

Plea Bargain - Often, the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney assigned to the case will engage in plea negotiations. Plea negotiations often require the Defendant to plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges and/or sentencing recommendations from the Prosecutor's Office.  Plea negotiations generally occur between the defense attorney or public defender assigned to the case, then communicated to the Defendant.

Trial - A Defendant is afforded a chance to defend him or herself against the charges brought by the State at a jury trial or court trial. Court trials are frequently set for minor infractions and are overseen by a judge. Jury trials include a jury made up of Blaine County residents. For misdemeanor crimes a unanimous jury of six (6) individuals must make a decision of guilt before a person is convicted. For felony crimes a unanimous jury of twelve (12) individuals must make a decision of guilt before a person is convicted. The jury makes the final decision on guilt or innocence based upon the evidence presented to them.

Acquittal - If a Defendant goes to trial and is found not guilty, they are considered to be acquitted and may not be charged again for the crimes that they were accused because doing so would amount to Double Jeopardy.

Conviction - when a Defendant is found guilty of a crime by a jury or judge, they are considered to be convicted. Convictions may be appealed to a higher court (court of appeal, Supreme Court).

Sentencing - once a Defendant has plead guilty or been convicted of the charges against them, sentencing is imposed by a judge. The terms of the sentence will vary based upon the type of crime and severity and the Defendant's previous convictions, if any.