I have had several clients confused about the way a criminal case commences, proceeds, and ends. This is meant as a brief explanation as to how cases in the criminal justice system proceed generally. These are not hard and fast rules. Each case and each county is unique, and it is best to speak to a criminal defense attorney about the specific facts of your case to know what applies and what does not.
First, there is the encounter with law enforcement. There are ways of knowing if you are going down the path of being charged criminally. (See my article on what your rights are during these encounters.) If you are handcuffed and booked into jail, it is safe to assume you are being charged with a crime. However, there are other situations which are not so clear. If you are handed a Notice to Appear or a traffic citation, you may be being charged with a misdemeanor. The officer is merely choosing to not book you into the jail, and is instead releasing you on your own recognizance (more commonly termed ROR). (Call our office to find out if you were charged with a crime.)
Although the police choose under what charge to initially "arrest" you, it then becomes the job of the State Attorney's Office (more commonly known as the prosecutors) to decide what to formally charge. The filing prosecutor reviews the facts of the case and can keep the charges as they are, change them entirely, add charges, remove charges, or choose not to file any charges whatsoever. If they choose not to file, the arrest WILL still be on your record and you may want to speak to someone about sealing or expungement options.
Once formal charges are made, you will be given an arraignment date. The only thing required of you at this time is to plea "guilty" or "not guilty." If you plea guilty, you are admitting guilt and the judge will sentence you. If you plea not guilty, you have the option of changing your plea at a later date.
Your case is then set on a calendar call or status to allow you or your attorney time to demand discovery and review your case. Your case could remain on this path for quite a long time. Each case is unique and should be reviewed thoroughly prior to making the decision as to whether to accept the judge's or state's offer, file any relevant motions, or take the case to trial (whether by judge or jury).
Contact us for a free consultation regarding your specific facts and learn what options are available to you.