In most cases a criminal defendant's first court hearing is an arraignment before a judge or magistrate. An arraignment is an appearance in court where charges are formally read to a defendant. The judge or magistrate may also evaluate whether there was probable cause for an arrest, and may compel the prosecutor to allege additional facts to support the arrest. If probable cause is not established, the defendant must be released.
If bail has not previously been set, it is often set at the same time as the arraignment. Bail (or "bond") is often granted in a standard amount, depending upon the crime charged.
In some jurisdictions, there is a subsequent formal arraignment, where the formal charges ("indictment" or "information") are presented to the defendant. These charges are drafted by the prosecutor, and may vary from any original charges that were drafted by the police.
At arraignment, the defendant is offered the opportunity to enter a formal plea. Sometimes, a defendant will plead "guilty" or "not guilty." In some circumstances, the defendant may enter a "no contest" ("nolo contendere") plea, which is treated by the court in the same manner as a guilty plea. Sometimes, the defendant will "stand mute," and a not guilty plea will be entered by the court on his behalf. If a "not guilty" plea is entered, the court will ordinarily advise the suspect of his right to remain silent and his right to an attorney. If a defendant is indigent, he will usually be given the opportunity to petition the court for an appointed attorney.
Usually, a defendant should speak to an attorney (even if only for a free consultation) before deciding whether or not to enter a plea of guilty or no contest. There is no need to rush into a plea to "get it over with" -- particuarly given that a bad decision can haunt you for the rest of your life.
If bail is granted, and the defendant posts the required bail, he will be released. Sometimes, a defendant will be released on his own recognizance -- his promise that he will appear for the next court hearing. Sometimes, bail is set in a very high amount. A defendant who is accused of very serious crimes may be denied bail, or have bail set in the millions of dollars. A defendant who is released on bail must attend all subsequent court hearings, or risk having his bail forfeited. (Keep this in mind -- if you put your house or your car up as collateral for somebody else's bail, you risk losing it if that person does not appear in court.)
If you are charged with a misdemeanor, the next hearing is likely to be a "pretrial," where the case is scheduled for trial. Sometimes, a defendant will enter a plea at the pretrial. At other times, the case will be scheduled for a bench trial (a trial decided by a judge without a jury), a jury trial, or plea hearing.
If a defendant is charged with a felony, but has not been indicted by a grand jury, the next step will likely be a preliminary examination at which the prosecution must demonstrate to the satisfaction of a judge that there is reason to believe that a crime was committed, and that the defendant was the person who committed the crime. The defendant is allowed to question witnesses at this hearing. While the defendant ordinarily can present evidence, and may choose to testify, most defendants choose not to do so. If the Court is satisfied by the prosecutor's evidence, the felony charges will be approved.
Depending upon your state's rules of criminal procedure, a defendant may be transferred to a different court for all further proceedings. He may be arraigned again, after the preliminary examination, and subsequently will have a pretrial.
During this time, the prosecutor and the defense attorney will likely demand discovery from each other. Often, this means nothing more than that the prosecutor gives the defense a copy of the police report, and perhaps some laboratory reports if the case involves drugs or drunk driving. While defense attorneys may differ, many prosecutors argue that this meager discovery fulfills their duties. The prosecution is obligated to provide the defense with the names and addresses of all relevant witnesses, and with copies of written or recorded statements made by the defendant or by co-defendants. The prosecution may be compelled by statute or court rule to provide additional information upon request, such as copies of witness statements, and reports from expert witnesses. The specific materials and information that must be exchanged will vary from state to state.
The defense may be required to provide certain information to the prosecutor, including witness lists, and may also be required to provide expert witness reports. In some states, the parties can conduct depositions of witnesses, where the witness testifies under oath before a court reporter, prior to trial. However, most states do not allow for depositions in criminal cases. A defendant may also be required to give formal notice of an intent to raise certain affirmative defenses to a charge, such as an alibi or insanity defense, or to specifically request a hearing about certain intended defenses, before those defenses can be raised at trial.
Depending upon state law, a defendant will have to notify the prosecution if he plans to bring certain defenses to the criminal charges, such as an alibi defense, an insanity or diminished capacity defense. The purpose of the notice requirement is to allow the prosecutor to prepare for the defense, and to collect evidence and interview witnesses to challenge the defense. A defendant who is claiming insanity will ordinarily be examined by a state psychiatrist, and the refusal to submit to examination will usually prevent the defendant from raising that defense.
The defendant generally has the right to request that the prosecutor's office assist him in procuring witnesses for trial. Indigent defendants usually receive the greatest assistance, which may include issuance of subpoenas. However, due to the prosecutor's access to information and police assistance that is not available to the defendant, the prosecutor is ordinarily obligated to help any defendant locate a missing witness.
Prior to the trial, either the defendant or the prosecutor may file motions with the trial court. Typical motions include motions to suppress evidence, motions in limine, and motions to dismiss. A motion to suppress evidence asks the trial court to exclude evidence from the trial, usually on the basis that it was collected in violation of the defendant's constitutional rights. For example, if the defendant is arrested illegally, and is searched after his arrest, the evidence found during that search may be inadmissible. Similarly, a defendant may seek to exclude a statement or confession that he made to the police. A motion in limine asks the court to limit the issues or evidence at trial. For example, a defendant may want to ask the court to exclude certain inflammatory allegations about him, which are not related to the charges against him, or portions of the defendant's criminal record which are not properly admitted under the rules of evidence.
The prosecutor may also want to introduce evidence which cannot properly be linked to the defendant or the alleged crime, due to the circumstances or manner in which it was collected. A motion to dismiss asks the court to dismiss the charges against the defendant, usually on the basis of a procedural deficiency. A motion to dismiss may be filed following an illegal arrest, where all of the evidence presented by the prosecution was found as the result of that arrest.
At times, prior to trial, a defendant may be found eligible for a diversion program. These programs are not available in all communities. Typically, they are aimed at young offenders who have no significant criminal records. If a person successfully completes the conditions of a diversion program, which may include such requirements as counseling, attendance of crime impact classes, and regular attendance at school, either no charge is filed or the charge is dismissed. If the defendant violates the terms of the diversion program, the charges are reinstated.