Criminal Law Questions

Important information to know after you have been arrested and what to do next.This information is a general  introduction to the criminal justice system in North Texas. It does not  offer legal advice. Its purpose is to provide a basic explanation of  court terms and describe how a criminal case progresses through the  legal system.


What to do if you have been arrested:

If you can make a bond (money to  secure your release), through a bond company, then you will be released  from jail, but only if you have no other holds. (A hold is a detainer  placed on you by another governmental agency, which requires you be held  pending clearance of the hold. Example: Traffic tickets, or you may  qualify for pre-trial release. If you are unfamiliar with a bonds man,  our office can help you contact one.


If you are free on bond:

In many courts if you have been  able to make a bond, then you will be expected to hire an attorney to  represent you. This is an important decision to make and could determine  how the rest of your case can go. Take the time to find an attorney  that is right for you, but above all find someone who is experienced in  handling your type of matter. Find out if your lawyer goes to trial or  if they just plea out their clients. A plea may be good in your case,  but is not always the best option in the long run. That is why it is  important to find an attorney with trial experience. Remember you  are the one paying them. So ask to see how successful they are at what  they do. Only past accomplishment can show you how likely your attorney  can succeed.


Different levels of  criminal offenses:

In Texas at the county level,  offenses are prosecuted at the lowest level of Class B misdemeanor up to  the highest level of First Degree felony. Examples of the level of each  type of offense and the possible ranges of punishment are as follows: 

 Class B Misdemeanor  - confinement for a term not to exceed 180 days in the county jail;  and/or a fine not to exceed $2,000.00. Example: DWI, Criminal Trespass,  Theft by check $50.00-$500.00, evading arrest or detention.

Class A Misdemeanor  - confinement for a term not to exceed one year in the county jail;  and/or a fine not to exceed $4,000.00. Example: a second DWI, Assault,  Burglary of a vehicle, unlawfully carrying a weapon.

State Jail Felony  - confinement for a term from 180 days to two years in the state jail;  and an optional fine not to exceed $10,000.00. Example: Credit card  abuse, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, reckless injury to a child.

Third Degree Felony  - confinement for a term from two to ten years in prison; and an  optional fee not to exceed $10,000.00. Example: a third DWI, Indecency  with a child, Kidnapping, Possession of a firearm by a felon.

Second Degree Felony  - confinement for a term from two to twenty years in prison; and an  optional fee not to exceed $10,000.00. Example: Aggravated assault or  Kidnapping (if the victim is released unharmed), Arson, Robbery, Sexual  assault.

First Degree Felony  - confinement for life or a term of five to 99 years in prison; and an  optional fee not to exceed $10,000.00. Example: Murder, Aggravated  kidnapping, Robbery or Sexual assault.

Capital Felony  - punishment in prison for life or death penalty. If the State does not  seek the death penalty, upon conviction, an automatic life sentence is  imposed. Where the State seeks the death penalty, upon conviction, the  jury must answer questions, which may result in either a sentence of  life imprisonment or the death sentence. Example: Murder during the  commission of another felony such as kidnapping, rape or robbery.


How the Case is Filed and Processed


Misdemeanor Offenses:

  • Misdemeanor cases are filed by the police agency with the District Attorney’s Office. 
  • If  the District Attorney’s Office decides to prosecute the case, a document  is created callled an information. (The information is a written  statement filed and presented on behalf of the State of Texas by the  district attorney, charging the defendant with the offense.) It provides  the defendant with the notice as to the offense for which he stands  charged. 
  • Once  an information has been processed, a file is generated and the case is  randomly assigned to one of the 12 misdemeanor courts.

Felony Offenses:

  • Felony level offenses are filed by the police agency with the District Attorney’s Office. 
  • The District  Attorney’s Office then generates a charging instrument known as an  indictment. (An indictment is the written statement of a grand jury  accusing a person therein named of some act or omission, which, by law,  is declared to be an offense.) The indictment puts the defendant on  notice regarding the charges being brought. 
  • Once the paperwork  has been generated the case is then set to be heard by the grand jury.  (The grand jury is a panel of citizens who briefly review information  provided by the police who then make a determination whether there is  sufficient evidence to believe that an offense has occurred.) 
  • Any person charged with a felony offense has the right to have his/her case indicted by the grand jury. 
  • Once filed, a felony  case is randomly assigned to one of the 15 felony courts. It may take  two to three weeks before a case is actually heard by the grand jury. 
  • The grand jury will  either issue a bill of indictment or a no bill. True bill means that the  grand jury found that there was enough evidence to believe that an  offense did occur and the case will then be forwarded to the felony  court to which it was assigned. A no bill means that the grand jury did  not believe that there was enough evidence to proceed with the case as  it was filed.

Going to Court?

If you are on bond you will be  notified by mail (at the address you gave the jail when you were  released) as to which court your case has been assigned, the court date  and the time you are to appear. On your court date, you should go  directly to that court. Each court posts a docket sheet in front of the  courtroom. The docket sheet lists the name of each person who has a  court setting on any particular day, the name of their attorney and the  type of setting (announcement, plea, trial). You must be in court on the  day and time instructed or the court may forfeit your bond and issue a  warrant for your arrest. (Bond forfeiture means you lose the money that  you have posted as a guaranty to the court that you would appear on the  setting date.) Some courts require that you come inside the courtroom,  while others will tell you to remain in the hall directly outside the  assigned courtroom until the court bailiff calls your name. If you don’t  know where to go, it is always best to enter the courtroom and check in  with the court bailiff or court coordinator.


How the Case Proceeds

 

Misdemeanor Cases: This process begins once the police have filed the case and the District Attorney’s Office drafts an information.


Felony Cases: This process begins when the Grand Jury issues a true bill of indictment. Once the case has been indicted, the process begins.


The First Appearance Setting

 If on bond the person accused must appear in the court, unless you have  hired a lawyer. In that case, you lawyer will appear for you on all  misdemeanor cases, but you must appear with your attorney on felony  cases.


Announcement Settings
These settings allow both the defense lawyer and the assistant district  attorney an opportunity to discuss the case and determine if the case  will be dismissed, plea bargained (a plea bargain is a resolution of the  case where both the State and the defendant agree to a certain  punishment without involving either a judge or a jury) or set for a jury  or bench trial. (A bench trial is a trial to a judge without a jury.)

Generally, a case may be set for  announcement two to three times. A person on bond or on a felony case is  be required to appear in court every time the case is set on the  court’s docket, regardless of the type of setting and regardless of  whether that person’s attorney must also appear.


Final Announcement Setting
At this setting it is determined whether or not the person accused  wishes to reach a plea bargain agreement with the Assistant District  Attorney or to have a trial.

In many courts, once a case is set  for a trial of any kind, any plea bargain offer is considered rejected  and may not be offered again.


Plea Setting
If the defendant chooses not to have a jury or bench trial, then the  case is set for a plea. At the plea setting the person enters a plea of  either guilty or nolo contendre to the charges. (A plea of nolo  contendre means that a person id not pleading guilty but chooses to “not  contest” the charges brought against him. It has the same legal effect  as pleading guilty to the charge.) A person who pleads to the charge may  accept either the plea bargain offered by the State, or he may enter an  open plea. (An open plea means that the defendant has rejected the plea  bargain and asks the judge to set punishment.)


Trial Setting
Every person charged with a criminal offense has an absolute right to  plead not guilty to the charge and have a trial by jury or a trial  before a judge (bench trial). In either case, the State of Texas,  through an Assistant District Attorney, must prove a person guilty of  the offense charged beyond a reasonable doubt. In a misdemeanor trial  there are six jurors who hear the evidence presented in the trial. At  the felony level there are 12 jurors. There are three possible phases to  each jury trial. They are: voir dire (jury selection phase);  guilt/innocence phase (the time during the trial when the evidence is  presented); and, if the person is determined to be guilty, the  punishment phase.

A jury’s decision with regard to  guilt or innocence must be unanimous (this means that all six or 12  people must reach the same conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of  the person on trial). If the jury does not reach a unanimous verdict the  judge may declare a mistrial (also known as a “hung jury”) and the case  will be retried.

A defendant who has been found guilty of an offense may choose whether the jury or the judge will set his or her punishment.

In a bench trial the judge  determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant and sets the  punishment. Plus you waive all error in the case on appeal.


Probation
Depending on a number of factors, a person may be eligible to have a  jail sentence probated. Probated means that they are not sent to jail  but are released and supervised by the Department of Community  Supervision.)


What To Do When Coming To Court

Clothing -  Any time you are to appear in court you should dress as though you are  going to a job interview. Men should wear pants and a shirt with a  collar. A suit, jacket, or tie is always appropriate. Women should wear a  dress, skirt or pants that are not too tight, too short, or too low  cut. It is never proper to wear shorts, t-shirts, or sandals. Excessive  make-up or jewelry should not be worn. In the courtroom itself, it is  never proper to wear a hat, read a newspaper, eat, or chew gum.