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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.