How your case plays out in court largely depends on the crime you are being charged with.
Misdemeanors and felonies initially take a different route in the Michigan Court system.
Your arraignment is your initial appearance in front of the judge. When you are charged with a misdemeanor this is where you will have the first opportunity to enter a plea. If you wish, you can plead guilty, not guilty, or in some case no contest at you arraignment.
If you plead guilty or no contest, the judge may choose to sentence you on the spot or set a future date for your sentencing. If, however, you choose to plead not guilty or remain silent, you will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference.
At the arraignment, the judge may also choose to set bail. Posting bail assures the court that you will return for future court proceedings.
If the judge thinks you may be at risk for not returning, he may deny bail. However, if the judge believes you will return, he can also release you on your own “recognizance”. This simply means the judge will take you at your word that you will return as requested.
This pre-trial conference is not a hearing and typically the judge is not involved. This is a meeting between the prosecutor and you (or your attorney) to discuss whether or not a plea agreement is possible.
A plea bargain is where you agree to plead guilty to a lesser charge than the original. This works out well for the prosecutor because they get a guilty plea, while you may face a less detrimental sentence.
Prosecutors would like to resolve all cases prior to trial and will try to convince a defendant that agreeing to a plea bargain is their best option. Your attorney can assist you in really figuring out which options are best for your personal situation.
Pre-Trial Motions and Continuances
Many things can happen while you are waiting to go to trial. Attorneys will file motions to ask the court to make decisions on such things as admissible evidence and discovery.
Continuances may also be filed by either side. Continuances delay the trial by pushing the date back as needed. This is done so both sides (prosecution and defense) are completely prepared for the trial when the trial date arrives.
Unlike with a misdemeanor, felony arraignments do not allow for you to enter a plea. At your arraignment the judge will inform you of the charges you are facing and set a preliminary examination (hearing) for 14 days following.
In felony cases, a pre-trial conference may be held between the prosecution and defense to determine if a plea bargain is appropriate.
In Michigan, the next step on your way to trial is a preliminary examination (also referred to as a preliminary hearing or probably cause hearing).
This is a formal process in front of the judge that challenges the prosecution to show the court that enough probable cause exists to send the case to trial. At this point, the prosecution does not have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the crime, just that there is sufficient evidence to believe that you did.
Following the preliminary investigation, the judge can “bind” your case over for trial, reduce the charges, or dismiss the charges altogether.
You do have the option to waive your right to this preliminary hearing and move straight to trial. Your attorney can advise you on if this would be an appropriate decision.
Once the judge determines that there is enough probable cause to bind the case over to trial, your case will then be transferred to circuit court where you will have another arraignment. Similar to your first arraignment, the judge will again read the charges to you. Unlike the previous arraignment, you may enter your plea at the Circuit court level.
If you didn’t have a pretrial conference previously, you will have one now. Prosecutors would prefer to have all cases resolved before trial and they hope to have you agree to a plea agreement through this informal conference.
Remember, a good attorney can help you decipher if a plea agreement is really your best option.
Again, felony cases will go through many motions and continuances in the route to trial. Several small hearing may be held to determine things related to witnesses, evidence, and testimony. This is all in preparation for trial. The prosecution and defense (you and your attorney) want to be sure that you are completely ready for the trial and have left no important aspects out.
Generally speaking, if you are facing more than six months in prison, you have a right to a jury trial. This means that even some misdemeanors are eligible for jury trials in the State of Michigan.
If you decide that you would prefer a bench trial (one where only the judge presides), you can waive your right to trial by jury. In most case, however, both the prosecution and the judge must agree to your waiver.
Typically, no matter the charges you are facing, your trial will follow a set guideline. There are certain steps that each trial goes through. Some trials may last a few hours, while others can drag on for weeks. An experienced attorney can help set your expectations about trial.
- Opening Statements: Each side, beginning with the prosecution will have the opportunity to introduce the case at this point, informing the jury what will be proven or disproven in the trial.
- Presentation of Evidence: This stage of the trial can be the longest. It is during the presentation of evidence that the prosecution attempts to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you committed the crime you are charged with. This is where witnesses will be called and questioned by both sides. The prosecution and defense take turns both in presenting evidence and questioning witnesses. This back and forth can go on indefinitely until both parties are satisfied.
- Closing Arguments: Closing arguments are the last opportunity each side will have to address the jury and judge. This is often where the attorneys really give it their best shot in attempting to sway the jury to their side.
- Judge’s Instructions to the Jury: Before the jury deliberates the case, the judge will instruct them of their legal duties.
- Jury Deliberations: The jury will retire to private chambers to decide your fate. A jury’s decision must be unanimous.
- Verdict: Once the jury has reached a decision, the judge will enter a verdict. If you have been found guilty, the judge may sentence you that day but will most likely set sentencing for a future date.