THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE PROCESS
HOW A CASE IS BROUGHT TO COURT
The criminal justice process starts with the commission of a crime. There are three basic ways a case may be brought to court.
Arrest of the accused at the scene of the crime;
- Arrest based on a warrant issued by the Court in response to a sworn complaint; and
- Arrest based on an indictment by a grand jury as the result of an investigation.
In all three instances, the evidence available must be sufficient to later convince the Court that there is “probable cause” to believe that a crime was committed and that the person arrested took part in committing the crime. “Probable Cause” means that there is reasonable belief that a crime has been committed.
THE MAGISTRATE HEARING (First Appearance)
Within twenty-four (24) hours of the arrest, the defendant may appear before a judge for a magistrate hearing. At the magistrate hearing the judge will set the conditions if any, for release of the defendant from jail.
When a person who is accused of a crime has sufficient roots in a community to ensure that the person will return for trial, the judge may release the accused on their own recognizance pending judicial proceedings. This means the accused does not have to post bond. Some defendants can post bond prior to the hearing, based on certain conditions.
In Palm Beach County, there is a “no bond” policy on arrests of domestic violence acts. The State Attorney’s Office also has a “no drop” policy in domestic violence cases. Defendants may be prosecuted for domestic violence crimes without the victim.
Victims and witnesses are not required to be present at this hearing but you have the right to attend, and to make the judge aware of your feelings about the release of the accused if you desire to do so. Magistrate hearings are held each morning.
If you wish to speak to the Assistant State Attorney, you must indicate that to the Court Deputy or the Victim Witness Advocate in the magistrate room. The Court Deputy will then inform the attorney that you are present and wish to make a statement. It is important that you inform the Court if the accused has threatened to harm you or your family in any way.
For many crimes, bail bonds have been previously determined by the courts and are contained in a list of standard bond amounts. If the defendant is unable to post the standard bond amount or if the crime for which the accused has been arrested, such as murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping, is not included in the standard bond list, the defendant will go to a first appearance hearing within 24 hours after arrest. This is called a magistrate hearing.
An Arraignment is for the initial court appearance of the defendant at which time the court will inform the defendant of the charges pending, give the defendant their/her rights, appoint a lawyer if necessary, and hear the plea of the defendant. There are two (2) types of arraignment hearings, they are Misdemeanor or Felony Arraignments.
These arraignments are set before a judge when a defendant is charged with an offense. At the arraignment, the defendant is told that he/she is charged with and the possible penalties for the offense. The defendant may plead guilty, and if so, the judge may impose a sentence at this time.
The defendant’s ability to obtain an attorney is also assessed, and a public defender or volunteer attorney may be appointed if he/she cannot afford a private attorney. If you would like your feelings to be taken into consideration, it is important that you appear at this hearing.
You may be receiving a subpoena for certain hearings and the trial. The subpoena is a court order to appear at the time and date indicated. The telephone number of the Victim/Witness Liaison will be on the subpoena, and you will be required to call him/her upon receipt. Your telephone number(s) will be taken in order to inform you of changes in the court date or case status. Many cases do not go to trial, and the State Attorney’s Office will do their best to notify you of changes if you provide them with a contact number. You will also be receiving notices of various hearings that will occur during the course of the criminal process. These notices will differ from your subpoena since they are merely to inform you of the activity of the case and your opportunity, if you wish, to be present at these hearings.
STATE ATTORNEY’S INVESTIGATION
Sometime after the magistrate hearing and before the arraignment, you may be notified to appear at the State Attorney’s Office to give sworn statements regarding the crime. Your attendance is very important. The case against the accused may proceed with or without your cooperation. The accused will not be present at this meeting.
INFORMATION / NO INFORMATION FILED
After your appearance at the State Attorney’s office or the presentation of your case to the State Attorney, the Assistant State Attorney who is handling the case will make a determination, based upon the facts presented, as to what action is appropriate. The victim will be informed of the results of this decision.
The State Attorney’s Office may file an Information, a formal document filed with the Clerk’s Office stating the charge(s) filed against the defendant. Or, the State Attorney’s office may file a No-Information, a formal document stating that the facts and circumstances as presented do not warrant prosecution at this time. You may call the Intake Division of the State Attorney’s Office to find out if your case has been filed. (561) 355-7192.
A victim may file an Impact Statement with the State Attorney at any time before sentence is imposed on the defendant. The Victim Impact Statement is a written or oral statement given by you describing the effect the crime has had on you personally and the losses that you have suffered. The Impact Statement also advises the Court of your feelings about the sentence which should be imposed on the defendant. The Victim Impact Statement may be obtained from the State Attorney’s Office, Victim Advocate Unit at (561) 355-7365 or DOVE Program at (561) 355-7433. This unit may also assist you in the completion of the form. The completed form will then be placed in the court file to be presented to the judge for consideration. Additionally, you may be present in Court to testify about the impact of the crime on you.
The attorney for the defendant can have a subpoena issued requiring you to appear and answer questions under oath concerning your knowledge of the criminal offense. This proceeding, where testimony is given, is referred to as a deposition. An Assistant State Attorney can be present if requested in advance by you.
You are not obligated to discuss the case with anyone unless you are properly served with a subpoena.
Pretrial Intervention is a program for first-time offenders.
The defendant must have the approval of the State Attorney and the victim for acceptance into this program. If the defendant successfully completes the program, the criminal charges will be dropped. If the defendant does not fulfill the terms of the program, the charges will be reactivated, and full prosecution will be pursued. Only non-violent crimes are accepted into this program.
A status conference is a court proceeding in which the prosecuting and defense attorneys discuss the situation of the case. At this time the courts are informed of possible plea agreement or the availability of victims/witnesses for trial if a plea agreement cannot be reached. In addition, if the defendant, State or Court is not ready for trail and a plea agreement cannot be reached, the judge will grant a continuance of the case.
If both the State and the defense cannot agree to a plea and a continuance is not granted by the judge, then the case will be scheduled for trial. If the defendant pleads guilty at this time, sentence may be imposed at the time of the plea or a sentencing date will be scheduled. It is important for you to appear at the sentencing hearing if you would like your feelings to be taken into consideration.
Certain motions concerning legal issues may be heard at the status conference. Occasionally, a witness may be needed on a pretrial motion. If your presence is required, you will be subpoenaed well in advance of the hearing. Please note that court dates and hearings may be changed by the Court when there is an emergency or legal necessity therefore you should maintain regular contact with the Victim Advocate Unit and the prosecuting Assistant State Attorney.
Our courts are seriously overcrowded. Delays are often caused when various court proceedings are continued (continuances) for any number of reasons. The State Attorney or defendant’s attorney may request a continuance in order to do further investigations of the case or for other legal reasons. Sometimes these continuances may even mean an unnecessary trip to court for you.
Please remember that every effort is made to keep you informed of the proceedings by the State Attorney’s Office in advance and that your patience and cooperation are essential to successful prosecution.
In a significant number of cases, pre-sentence investigations are conducted. The pre-sentence investigation consists of an interview with the defendant, a review of their criminal record, and a review of the specific facts of the crime. The probation department then makes a recommendation to the judge about the type and severity of the sentence. The judge always makes the final decision about the sentence.
At the trial, the judge or a jury of citizens will decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. First, the State will present its evidence, which may include your testimony. Then the defense will present its evidence. Attorneys for each side will have a chance to ask questions of every witness.
The burden of proof is on the State to prove the defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden is designed to be difficult so that innocent people will not be found guilty. The State cannot carry the burden of proof without the effective cooperation of victims/witnesses.
Many times sentencing of a defendant who pleads guilty or is found guilty takes place at the status conference or trial proceeding. If it is determined that sentencing will occur at a later time, you will receive notification of the scheduled date. Because sentencing can occur at any state, it is important to have your Victim Impact Statement Form completed and returned to the State Attorney’s Office as soon as possible.
All property will promptly be returned to victims and witnesses, upon approval from the case filing agency, unless there is a compelling law enforcement reason for retaining it.
In addition to any punishment, the Court shall order the defendant to make restitution to the victim for damage or loss caused directly or indirectly by the defendant’s offense. Restitution may be monetary or no-monetary. The State Attorney has the responsibility to present to the Court the dollar amount and items to be considered in any restitution hearing. For this reason the Victim Impact Statement Form must be filled out and documentation supplied to the Assistant State Attorney handling the case at the earliest possible time. After inmate’s release any questions about restitution can be asked of Probation Dept. at 561-837-5175.
Victims can be kept informed of any appeals by writing the Attorney General, Bureau of Crime Victims Rights, the Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida 32399-1050, telephone 904-488-0600.
After a defendant is sent to prison, victims can be kept informed of the defendants status by writing the Department of Corrections, 2501 Blairstone Road, Tallahassee, Fl 32399-2500, Attn.: Victim Assistance, Telephone 904-488-9166.
If you are physically injured as a result of a crime, you may be eligible for monetary reimbursement of medical bills incurred and loss of wages through the Bureau of Crimes Compensation Program. The purpose of the program is to provide compensation to innocent victims of crimes or their families who suffer physical injury or death as a direct result of a crime. This is different from restitution paid by the defendant.
In order to apply for Crimes Compensation, contact P.B.C. Victim Services at 561-355-2418 for further assistance. These forms are also available through hospitals, police departments, the State Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office.
When a term of imprisonment or involuntary commitment is imposed, the defendant may be released from such imprisonment or commitment by expiration of sentence or probation.
You will be notified of any pending release of the sentenced defendant from a Palm Beach County jail facility providing that your current home address is on file with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Victim Notification Unit, 561-688-3978 or Fax 561-688-3986.
Inform the Sheriff’s Office if you move or change telephone number.
Notification to the employer. In cases where you, the victim/witness must take time off from your work to assist in investigations, the investigating police agency, Victim Advocate Unit or the State Attorney will assist you in explaining your circumstances to your employers or creditors, if requested.
Upon request from the victim/witness, assistance can be provided for such services as transportation, parking, separate pretrial waiting areas and translator services for attending court, as is practicable. If you need further information concerning these services, contact the State Attorney’s Office, Victim Advocate Unit or Victim Services.