Although the words arrest and trial are common in colloquial speech and on popular television shows and movies, the average layman may not understand the process that goes on between the two.
Understanding each stage of the defense process
Following an arrest, the accused will go through the basic steps of the criminal justice process leading up to a trial.
- Investigation: During the investigation phase, law enforcement might use search and seizure warrants or interrogations to gather information about your alleged illicit activities. Seeking legal help if you suspect you are under investigation can significantly help your case.
- Arrest and charges: Depending on the investigation, police officers may arrest you if they have probable cause. Prosecutors then have the power to determine if you should be charged with a crime and the severity of the charges.
- Arraignment: This is your first appearance in court and typically occurs within 48 hours of your arrest. The judge will inform you of the charges against you and set your next court date and your bail amount. You will also enter a guilty or not guilty plea. Pleading not guilty gives your attorney time to prepare for your case. If you plead guilty, you do not have a trial, and the judge moves ahead to sentencing.
- Pretrial hearing and plea agreement negotiations: Before a trial, the prosecutor and your attorney exchange information about the alleged facts of the case and evidence against you. Many cases end at this stage if the prosecution and the defense enter into a plea agreement.
- Trial and verdict: During the trial, both the defense and prosecution present evidence, which the judge reviews to determine guilt. The judge or jury must determine if they find you to be guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of each of the charges.
- Sentencing: If you are found guilty or choose to plead guilty, you will receive a punishment — jail time, fines, community service, treatment, probation or a combination — based on the severity of your crime.
- Appeal: You can appeal a guilty verdict by having a higher court review the case proceedings. The appellate court has the power to overturn a lower court’s decision or order a new trial.
Guidance through the maze-like criminal justice system
When your future and freedom are on the line, it’s unwise to attempt maneuvering through the Texas criminal justice system without guidance from an experienced criminal defense attorney. What you think you know about the legal system and how to proceed is often quite different from the approach you should take.