If you are facing DUI, assault, drug, or other criminal charges, you probably have a lot of questions for a criminal defense lawyer. You are probably concerned about how long the criminal court process takes. Generally speaking, resolving a misdemeanor charge can take four to six months. A lower level felony may take six months to a year, while a major felony can take a year or longer. And, if your felony case goes to trial, it’s likely that it take longer than one year to resolve.
The legal system strives to balance the right to a speedy trial with the need for thorough and fair proceedings. Delays can be frustrating, but they often arise from the complexities inherent in ensuring due process and justice for all parties.
Key Reasons Why Court Cases Take So Long
Many factors play a role in how much time it takes for a criminal case to go to trial, many of which are rooted in the complexity of the legal system.
Legal Procedures and Pretrial Motions
Before a trial can begin, numerous legal procedures and pretrial motions need to be addressed. These include requests for discovery of evidence, motions to suppress evidence, and other motions involving extensive legal arguments.
Both the prosecution and the defense need time to gather evidence, interview witnesses, and build their cases. This process can be time-consuming, especially for cases with a large volume of evidence.
Courts have busy dockets and limited resources, which can lead to delays in scheduling trials. High caseloads, limited judges, and courtroom availability can contribute to trial dates being set far in the future.
Coordinating the availability of witnesses, including law enforcement officers, experts, and civilians, can be challenging. This can lead to delays if certain key witnesses are unavailable on the scheduled trial date. Witnesses may also be difficult to locate, uncooperative, or intimidated, leading to delays in securing their testimony.
Negotiations and Plea Bargains
Many criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains, where the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest in exchange for a lesser sentence and/or reduced charges. Negotiating these agreements can take time, and they can sometimes be reached after a trial date has been set.
Complexity of Cases
Some criminal cases are inherently complex due to factors such as multiple defendants, intricate legal issues, or extensive evidence. These cases often require more time for preparation and presentation in court.
Legal Motions and Appeals
During the trial process, both sides may file various legal motions, and after the trial, there could be appeals if one party disagrees with the outcome. These additional legal steps can extend the overall timeline of the case.
Changes in Circumstances
New evidence can emerge, witnesses can come forward, or legal strategies can change, leading to delays as both sides adjust to these changes in the case.
What Happens When Someone is Charged with a Crime?
Before a criminal case goes to trial, the criminal court process generally follows this sequence of steps:
Arrest or citation: The process begins with an arrest by law enforcement officers based on probable cause. Alternatively, for less serious offenses, a citation may be issued requiring the individual to appear in court at a later date.
Initial appearance: The accused is brought before a judge for an initial appearance, usually within a short period after arrest. During this appearance, the charges and possible penalties are read, and the accused is informed of their rights, including the right to an attorney.
Bail or bond hearing: If bail has not been set, a bail or bond hearing is held to determine whether the accused will be released from custody while the case is pending. The judge considers factors like flight risk, danger to the community, and ties to the community when considering bond. In addition to setting a monetary bond, the judge can prohibit the accused from contacting an alleged victim or place, prohibit the defendant from leaving the state, or prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
Preliminary hearing (felony cases): In felony cases, the accused is entitled to a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, the State must prove the by probably cause there was a crime committed and that the defendant is the individual who committed the crime. Probable cause is a lower standard than the standard at trial, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Arraignment: At the arraignment, the accused formally enters a plea (guilty, not guilty, or no contest). The case proceeds to the next step if a not-guilty plea is entered. If a guilty or no contest plea is entered, the case jumps to the sentencing stage.
Discovery and pretrial motions: The prosecution and defense exchange evidence during the discovery process. Pretrial motions, such as a motion to suppress evidence, may be filed and argued.
Pretrial conference: The attorneys from both sides may meet with the judge to discuss the case’s status, potential plea bargains, or other procedural matters.
Negotiation or trial: If a plea agreement is reached, the accused may plead guilty or no contest. If no agreement is reached, the case proceeds to trial, where evidence is presented, witnesses testify, and arguments are made to a judge or jury.
Verdict and sentencing: If the case goes to trial, a verdict is rendered by a judge or jury. If the accused is found guilty, a separate sentencing hearing is held to determine the appropriate penalty.
Appeals (if applicable): If the accused is found guilty and believes there were errors in the trial process, they may have the option to appeal the conviction to a higher court.