Over the years, I have been asked hundreds of times about the purpose of various steps in the prosecution of a criminal defendant. These questions have been asked by clients, witnesses, alleged victims, jurors and other lawyers. That covers just about every type of person in society.
So, I thought it might be helpful to generally explain the criminal procedural process in Georgia from investigation to disposition.
Investigation – When a law enforcement agency becomes aware of a potential crime, they will obviously investigate the circumstances. This may include witness interviews, crime scene analysis, forensic analysis, and asking the suspect to come in for an interview. It is almost always unwise to provide a statement to law enforcement during this stage if the suspect is not represented by an attorney. If an attorney is involved, an interview can be beneficial under some very limited circumstances.
Arrest – If an officer believes that there is probable cause (the person probably committed the crime), then he or she can request a judge to sign a warrant for that person’s arrest. Once this happens, the suspect becomes a defendant, is arrested, and taken to the local jail.
Bond – Under most circumstances, the defendant will be eligible for an immediate bond. In more serious cases, bond may be denied by the magistrate judge. When this happens, the defendant’s attorney should file a motion for bond in superior court and request a hearing.
Indictment – While some criminal cases can be prosecuted by the District Attorney by simply drafting a formal accusation, more serious crimes require that the case be presented to a grand jury. The District Attorney and the prosecuting police officer will tell the grand jurors about the case. The grand jury will either issue a bill of indictment (a formal criminal charge) or decline to prosecute the case based on insufficient evidence. This is called a “no bill.”
Arraignment – The arraignment hearing is very procedural in nature. The defendant and his lawyer simply appear in court and enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. For practical purposes, the plea at this point is almost always “not guilty.” This happens because the defense attorney usually does not have enough information about the evidence in the case to make a responsible recommendation to the client. (Many courts in west Georgia allow the defense attorney to waive arraignment and enter a plea of not guilty by simply filing a motion. This alleviates the need for a court appearance).
Calendar Call – Calendar calls are scheduled before the actual trial date in order for the attorneys to make announcements about the cases to the judge. The announcements give the judge some guidance on which cases have motions to be heard, will be trials, pleas, dismissals, dead dockets, continuances, etc.
Trial Date – This term is a little misleading. While there may be 100 cases placed on a “trial calendar,” only a very small percentage actually make it to a jury trial. Most cases are disposed of by negotiated pleas, blind pleas (where the judge makes the decision on a sentence), pretrial diversion, dismissal, dead docket, and many other creative forms of non-jury disposition. However, those small percentages of cases do make it to trial. When that happens, a jury will evaluate the evidence in the case and render its verdict.
During each of these phases of a prosecution, members of our community can and often will be involved. (Hopefully just as jurors). That is why you see so many people at the courthouse every day, particularly during jury trial weeks.
While this may seem like a lengthy process, our judicial system in Georgia bears the responsibility of dispensing justice in the fairest manner possible. In doing so, our defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges must be vigilant in protecting the rights of alleged victims and defendants. We must also be ever mindful and grateful of the sacrifice that our citizens make when they leave jobs and families to perform their Constitutional duty to serve as jurors on criminal cases.
Swindle is a local attorney at law.