Most citizens will live their entire lives without being accused of a crime. So, when a citizen is charged with a crime, it is usually a very unfamiliar process for them. An experienced criminal defense attorney can assist in navigating the complicated criminal justice system and, more importantly, can make the system work for the citizen instead of against them.
Below, I provide a basic overview of the criminal justice system here in Tennessee. If you are curious about federal crimes, I will post about those later. This road map is for Tennessee State crimes only. Additionally, this road map presumes your case started in General Sessions. Another Guide on Criminal Indictments is available elsewhere on byarslawoffice.com
Most cases begin with an arrest or with an officer issuing a citation. If a person is arrested, they are taken to jail and booked into jail on the charge for which they are arrested. After booking, a bond will be set and so will a first appearance court date. If the person was given a citation, that citation will include information about the court date and in some cases, such as a speeding ticket, the citizen can simply pay the citation instead of going to court.
The first time a person goes to court in General Sessions is called an arraignment. This is where the judge tells the person what they are charged with and will ask if the person intends to hire an attorney or would like to be considered for an appointed attorney. Then the judge will ask the person if they plead guilty or not guilty. If not guilty, their case will be continued to another court date so that the court may hold a preliminary hearing on the charge. Remember, at this point, the charge is usually nothing more than an allegation by a cop or another citizen. This is also a good time to ask the judge for more time to hire a lawyer, which is usually given liberally.
If the citizen is charged with a felony offense, they have a right to a preliminary hearing in General Sessions Court. A preliminary hearing requires the State to prove that a crime probably happened and the person who is charged probably committed it. This does not take much proof and so probable cause is usually found and the case is sent to or “bound over” to the grand jury for consideration.
If the citizen is charged with a misdemeanor offense, they can plead guilty or they can have a preliminary hearing OR they can have a trial in general sessions. If they chose to have a trial in general sessions, the state must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt and the judge determines if the state has done so. No jury trial is available in this court. If the citizen loses, they can appeal to the criminal court.
If your case has been “bound over” from General Sessions, then your case is sent to the grand jury. Grand Jury is a group of citizens who meet and hear evidence about the case and they, the Grand Jury, decide if there has been probable cause established to issue criminal charges. IF there is, the Grand Jury issues a “True Bill” and an indictment charging a crime is issued and the defendant is given a court date for arraignment in criminal court. If they do not find probable cause, the Grand Jury issues a “No True Bill” which concludes the case.
If a citizen has been indicted by the Grand Jury their next time in Court will be in Criminal Court. Some districts in Tennessee call this Circuit Criminal Court or just Circuit Court. This appearance is also called an arraignment. Just like in General Sessions, the Judge tells you what you are charged with; asks if you want to hire an attorney or if you need to be considered for appointed counsel; or if you the citizen wants to represent themselves.
The judge will then schedule another court appearance or perhaps several for motions, plea dates and eventually a trial date. If a person needs time to hire an attorney the Criminal Court judge will typically allow the person at least thirty days to attempt to do so before returning to court.
After the arraignment, a person’s attorney will begin filing motions and litigating issues. These are done in preparation for trial. The attorney will request discovery, (evidence) the State intends to use, exculpatory (favorable) evidence, suppression of certain evidence, and many other things depending on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. Once these pretrial motions have been addressed, and in the case that no plea agreement is reached prior to trial, the case proceeds to trial.
Every person within the bounds of the United States has the right to a jury trial when charged with a criminal offense. A jury is typically twelve people who must decide, unanimously, if the person is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Once the state has put on evidence, the defense puts on evidence and the jury considers the evidence and reaches a verdict. If a person is convicted the judge will then conduct sentencing.
If a person is found not guilty then the case is concluded. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict then a "mistrial" is declared and the case is temporarily stopped while the State decides whether or not to conduct a new trial. If the State decides to retry the case then the case goes through Pre-Trial Proceedings again.
If a person is unhappy with the outcome of a Criminal Court Trial, that person may appeal the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals. This must be done quickly after the conclusion of the Criminal Court Trial phase. If the Court of Criminal Appeals denies the appeal then the person may appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Tennessee Supreme Court does not have to take the appeal but they may decide if they want to or not. If the Tennessee Supreme Court denies the appeal then the person may appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. If the Supreme Court of the United States denies the appeal then the case is concluded.