Understanding the Criminal
The Criminal Justice System is complex and can be difficult to understand. The
Victim Assistance Program can help guide you through each of these stages and
accompany you to any court proceeding for support. Please do not hesitate to
call us at 850-606-6117 if we can be of assistance. The following is a step by
step guide that we hope will assist you in understanding the stages a criminal case goes through and what you can expect.
Law Enforcement can either arrest a person at the time of the crime or can present a sworn complaint to the State Attorney's Office with evidence. If there is "probable cause" to believe that a crime occurred, the suspect is taken into custody and transported to the jail where they are fingerprinted and photographed.
- First Appearance
Within 24 hours of the arrest, the suspect appears before a Judge (frequently via closed circuit television). At this time the suspect is made aware of the charges and whether they qualify for a bond. If appropriate, the Judge will set a bond amount and any conditions of the bond (such as no contact with the victim). A Public Defender is appointed if the suspect qualifies.
Victims may appear and speak to the Judge regarding the bond. Victims can also call the County Jail
or register for the VINE Program for information on the suspect's current custody status.
An Assistant State Attorney will review the facts of the case and determine what charges, if any, will be filed against the suspect.
The victim may be subpoenaed or asked to come in for a meeting with our office during this stage.
Suspect charged and now referred to as Defendant
There are two ways a suspect can be charged:
By Information: This is a formal charging document filed by the State Attorney's Office which sets forth the formal charges against a defendant.
By Indictment: Cases may also be presented to a Grand Jury comprised of eighteen residents of the county. A Grand Jury will hear evidence to determine what charges should be filed.
This is a hearing where the Defendant is informed of the charges and asked to enter a plea to those charges (Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest). Many Defendants will enter a plea of Not Guilty which allows them to have a defense attorney examine the evidence against them. Often the defendants themselves are not present at this hearing.
- Bond Hearing
At any time after a Judge sets bond, the defendant may set a hearing to ask the Judge to reduce the bond. The Judge will consider any previous criminal history, possible threat posed to the community or the victim, and whether the defendant can be trusted to return for future court appearances.
Victims have the right to speak to the Judge at this hearing.
- Case Management
This is a case status conference between the attorneys for both sides and the Judge. It is a way for the Judge to keep track of the case and how it is moving along. It is normal for a case to have several case managements before a decision is made as to whether the defendant will plea. The defendant may or may not be present during these hearings.
Any witness including the victim may be subpoenaed to give a sworn statement under oath to the defense attorney as to their knowledge of the case. Depositions are usually taken in a small room, not the courtroom. An Assistant State Attorney is present as well as an official Court Reporter. The defendant is not present except under rare circumstances.
Victims have a right to have a Victim Advocate present with them during deposition. Contact
a Victim Advocate when you
receive a subpoena.
- Plea Negotiations
A defendant may change a plea of Not Guilty at any time. In most cases, the Assistant State Attorney and the Defense Attorney will discuss how to resolve a case without a trial. The Victim is kept
abreast of these discussions and is consulted regarding any plea offers, in
certain cases. A defendant may plea to an agreed upon sentence or may plea "straight up" and let the Judge determine their sentence. Once a defendant enters a plea of Guilty or No Contest, there is not
a trial and we proceed to sentencing.
If no agreement can be reached then the case will go to trial. The State is now required to present the case before a jury and prove "beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt" that the defendant committed a crime. The defendant is not required to prove anything. Witnesses, including the victim are subpoenaed to testify and be cross examined by the opposing attorney.
For many victims and witnesses, testifying at trial can be most stressful part
of the court process. Your Victim Advocate, Prosecutor and Investigator will
work together to ensure you are supported, prepared and protected.
If the jury finds that the State has not proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt, they will find the defendant is not guilty. The defendant is free to go unless he/she has other charges pending.
If the jury finds that the State has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt, they will find the defendant guilty. The Judge will then set a sentencing date and often order a Pre-Sentence Investigation Report. The Judge will also decide whether the defendant should be taken into custody while awaiting sentencing.
You will receive a subpoena in the mail or you will be served by a Deputy Sheriff.
Our trial subpoenas will subpoena you for an entire week, but most trials only
take one day. There is usually a final Pre-Trial hearing the week before the
scheduled trial. It is important to stay in touch with the State Attorney's Office to determine the exact day of your trial and any last minute postponements.
- Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSI)
This is a background check on the defendant compiled by the probation department to assist the Judge in sentencing. You may be contacted by a probation officer and asked questions about what you think about the case which will be included in the report.
Victims have the right to review this report excluding confidential information about the defendant or other victims.
The hearing when a Judge decides the type of punishment a defendant should receive for a crime. This may be a separate hearing or occur at the same time a defendant enters a plea of Guilty or No Contest. The defendant is sentenced according to state sentencing guidelines.
Victims are permitted to give an oral or written Victim Impact Statement to the Judge describing how the crime has affected their life and what they would like to see happen.
The Victim Impact Statement can be a very powerful right for a victim. Contact
a Victim Advocate for more information.
- You may waive your rights regarding notification of
crucial proceedings and request to be notified only when your attendance is
required at a proceeding or the final disposition of the cause. Also, you may
waive any of the other rights mentioned above. If you wish to waive any of your
rights, please contact the Assistant State Attorney handling your case or a
member of our Victim Assistance Unit.
- The Victim Assistance Program can help guide you through
each of these stages and accompany you to any court proceedings for support.
Please do not hesitate to call us.
- Courthouse Therapy Dogs
The State Attorney's Office has partnered with the Office of Court
Administration and Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy to offer trained dogs
to accompany victims and witnesses during office visits and certain court
proceedings. Interactions with Animal Therapy teams can help reduce anxiety
and provide you with a "Four Legged Friend" to calm you. All teams are well
trained and interactions with pet handlers are kept confidential. Contact
the Victim Assistance Program at 850-606-6117 for more information.