When a law enforcement agent learns of a criminal offense, an official investigation begins. Witnesses are interviewed, crime scene forensic work is undertaken and the investigating officer starts to prepare a case file. When the officer has a reasonable basis to believe that an offense occurred and a particular person committed it, the officer has “probable cause” to sign a complaint formally accusing the suspect.
The officer, or citizen in certain cases, must swear before a magistrate or a court clerk to tell the truth. Having taken an oath, the officer must tell what is known about the case. If the magistrate concludes that there is probable cause to believe that an offense occurred and the accused person committed it, the complaint is filed.
The next step in the process is to formally arrest the person accused in the complaint. Sometimes a person is already in custody. Otherwise the accused must be arrested. A summons can be issued by the magistrate or court clerk. It is delivered personally or by mail to the accused, who must then appear in court on a specified date. In certain cases, when the crime is serious, or the authorities believe the accused will not voluntarily appear in court, a warrant s issued. A warrant empowers police to physically arrest an accused person and take him into custody.
In cases where arrest warrants are issued by a judge, the accused person is taken into custody, photographed and fingerprinted and an arrest report prepared. Pretrial Services prepares an assessment using an algorithm to determine whether the accused presents a flight risk, a danger to the victim, or the community. The crime charged or the results of the review of a person’s criminal record can lead to a decision to detain the accused until trial. A prosecutor can also file a motion seeking pretrial detention. However, the accused is entitled to representation by an attorney at a hearing to challenge the decision and persuade the court to release the accused. Unfavorable decisions can be appealed. It is extremely important for the criminal defense attorney to gather as much information about the case and the client in order to successfully gain the client’s release.
The prosecutor’s office prepares the case for the next step, presentation of the case to the county grand jury. Although sworn testimony must be presented to the grand jury, it can include hearsay and frequently only the most basic aspects of the case are presented. Yet the evidence must justify the grand jury conclusion that a crime was committed by the defendant sufficient to refer the case to the superior court for plea or trial. If they vote to proceed, an indictment is returned. It sets forth the charges the defendant must defend. At the trial stage the evidence must prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. A deficient indictment may be dismissed so a criminal defense attorney must review the transcript of proceedings in the grand jury.
After an indictment is returned, the accused person will be scheduled to appear in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Criminal Part in the County courthouse. The client is formally arraigned and a not guilty plea is entered. By the arraignment date the client and criminal defense attorney will have had an opportunity to review the discovery, which includes statements, reports, laboratory results and other evidence.
After the arraignment, status conferences are scheduled in order to narrow the issues presented by the discovery, resolve motions and negotiate. Application may be made for pretrial intervention, a diversionary program designed to resolve the case without a conviction.
The criminal defense attorney may reach a plea bargain with the prosecutor. It may be accepted by the client or rejected. Either way a plea bargain offer helps the defense assess the strength or weakness of the State’s case. If a resolution is reached for the client to enter a guilty plea it is done before the judge. A negotiated guilty plea, called a plea bargain, outlines the expected result of the case. If the judge accepts the deal, sentencing will be scheduled. If not, the trial is scheduled.
A defendant always has the right to appeal from an adverse finding at the conclusion of the case.