The 6 Steps in the Florida Criminal Court Process

If you’ve been charged with a crime or believe you are about to be charged with a crime, not knowing what to expect can be very stressful. Though it’s hardly the only stressor in the criminal court process, it’s one you can easily address by speaking with an experienced Florida defense attorney.

This post provides an overview of the steps in a Florida criminal case to give you a general idea of what to expect until you are able to consult an attorney.

Florida Criminal Prosecutions

1. Arrest or Summons

All criminal cases in Florida start with one of two events, either an arrest or a summons. An arrest occurs if Law Enforcement Officers take you into custody and seek to detain you on the basis that probable cause exists to believe you committed a crime. As you may expect, an arrest results in a defendant being taken to jail and it is one of the two ways that a criminal prosecution can begin. The second option is known as a summons or a notice to appear. These are methods wherein a person is advised that they are facing criminal prosecution without having to undergo an arrest. Typically a summons is mailed directly to a defendant, while a notice to appear may be provided by hand at the end of an encounter between a defendant and a member of law enforcement. It is also worth noting that for some criminal traffic offenses in Florida the citation an officer gives you will require you to set a court date and failure to do so within the allotted time could make things worse.

2. First Appearance

For all individuals who are arrested for a crime in Florida, Rule §3.130 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure requires that they be brought before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest. This initial court proceeding, mandated by Rule 3.310, is known as a First Appearance. The defendant has a right to appear with a criminal defense attorney, or may advise the court that they intend to hire a criminal defense attorney. Otherwise, a public defender will appear at the hearing.

At this hearing, the judge will advise the defendant of the charges, explain some rights, and usually set bail and any terms of pretrial release. If the defendant is represented by counsel at this hearing, the criminal defense lawyer may be able to persuade the court to release the defendant on their own recognizance, or to set bail lower than they otherwise might have.

3. Charging and Arraignment

Most people don’t know this, but being arrested in Florida doesn’t mean that you have been charged with a crime. In fact, to be charged with a crime in Florida requires action to be taken by the prosecutor, also known as the State Attorney. Now there are two ways that a prosecutor in Florida can charge someone with a crime: by filing an information or by obtaining an indictment from a grand jury. However, grand jury indictments are only required in certain very serious cases, thus most Florida criminal cases begin with the filing of an information.

Now once the prosecution has filed a charging document like an information a defendant is entitled to a specific court proceeding to address this charging document. Such a Court proceeding is the next step in the life of a criminal case and it is known as an arraignment. At this court date a defendant is made aware of exactly what he or she is charged with, given the opportunity to challenge the legal sufficiency of the charging document, and offered the ability to enter a plea. It is also worth noting that while a defendant in a criminal case is welcome to attend all of their court hearings, a defense attorney may be able to waive their appearance at some court dates like an arraignment.

As mentioned above at the arraignment a defendant will be asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. However, it is usually a serious mistake to enter a guilty plea at this hearing. Pleading guilty not only cuts off many important rights but it ends the case before any further steps can be taken by your attorney. So if you are considering entering a guilty plea at arraignment, you should consult an experienced criminal lawyer beforehand.

Pleading not guilty preserves your rights, and still allows for the possibility of making a deal and entering a guilty plea later if that is the best approach for your circumstances. Additionally, while some people don’t know this, the entry of a plea of guilty does not harm a defendant, anger the prosecution, or prevent successful plea negotiations. Instead it is just another way of saying we do not yet have a resolution or have not decided if we wish to proceed to trial.

4. Discovery, Pretrial Hearings, Investigation, and Negotiation

Now the next few steps overlap a bit. In a criminal case, the prosecution is required to provide certain information to the defense. This information includes a list of all witnesses the prosecution would plan to call on in trial, any reports written related to the investigation into the defendant, any statements allegedly made by the defendant, and any physical, video, audio, or forensic evidence the prosecution possesses. The process the criminal defense lawyer uses to obtain this information is called “discovery.” However, it is also worth noting that this is all done outside of court. Now upon receipt of this discovery information an attorney will review it and often review all or much of it with his or her client. Being aware of the evidence that the prosecution possesses is critical to effectively handling any criminal case, but as you can imagine this may take time.

Additionally, the Judge presiding over every criminal case will set periodic court dates known as Pre-trial Hearings or Status Hearings. These Court dates exist for the purpose of ensuring that the case is moving forward at an appropriate pace and also give the parties an opportunity to address the Judge if any issues or problems have arisen.

Now in addition to reviewing the discovery information that has been received from the prosecutor a defense attorney will likely conduct some additional investigation, as well. This may include talking to witnesses, taking depositions, examining physical evidence, or even working with expert witnesses to test evidence or reconstruct events. The specifics will depend on the crime and the circumstances.

During this time, a criminal defense attorney may also, at a client’s direction, speak with the prosecuting attorney about the possibility of a plea agreement. The evidence the attorney uncovers during the process described above can often be used as leverage to negotiate a favorable plea agreement.

5. Plea Agreement or Trial Prep

Depending on the strength or weakness of the prosecution’s case and the plea agreement offered, the next step will either be to enter into a plea agreement or to prepare for and proceed to trial.

  • If you and your criminal defense attorney decide to accept a plea agreement, your attorney will go over the terms of the plea agreement with you in detail. Then, you and your attorney will appear in court to enter a guilty or no contest plea. The judge will ask questions to make sure you understand your rights and the terms of the plea agreement. Then, the judge may proceed straight to sentencing or set a separate date for a sentencing hearing. If you enter a guilty plea or a plea of no contest, you give up some of your rights, including the right to appeal your conviction in most circumstances.
  • If you don’t enter into a plea agreement, it’s time to start preparing for trial. This involves your attorney organizing the evidence, securing witnesses, and conducting any further investigation. It also means filing any appropriate pretrial motions, such as motions to suppress evidence or to limit a witness’s testimony. During this process, it is possible that you may get another plea offer. For instance, if your lawyer gets important evidence excluded, the prosecution may offer a more favorable plea agreement–or even dismiss the charges. If that doesn’t happen or you don’t accept the agreement, you’ll proceed to trial.

6. Criminal Trial

If your case proceeds to trial, you have a right to a jury  in the vast majority of cases. As such, most tria’s will begin with jury selection. Then, the prosecution will make an opening statement, followed by an opening statement from your criminal law attorney.

Next, the prosecution presents its case by calling witnesses and introducing evidence. Your defense attorney will have the opportunity to question each of the prosecution’s witnesses about their testimony. When the prosecutor is done presenting evidence, your attorney will have an opportunity to ask the court to rule that the prosecution hasn’t made its case and dismiss the charges against you. If that motion is not granted–and it usually is not–your attorney will get a chance to present evidence.

Then, both sides will make closing statements, the judge will give instructions to the jury, and the jury will retire to another room to make a decision.

If the jury returns a not guilty verdict, the case is over. The prosecution cannot appeal an acquittal. If the jury returns a guilty verdict, your attorney will have an opportunity to ask the judge for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). This is a high bar, since the judge must find that no reasonable jury could have reached the conclusion they did.

Typically, the judge will enter a guilty verdict and schedule sentencing for a later date.

Talk to a Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

As you can see, the criminal justice process is complicated and requires extensive knowledge of both substantive law and technical procedures. If you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s in your best interest to speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible, before you do anything else relating to your case.

Jacksonville defense attorney Matthew Lufrano has dedicated his career to helping people charged with crimes in Florida, and he knows how important it is that you get reliable advice as soon as possible. That’s why he offers free, no-obligation consultations. Call 904-513-3905 to schedule yours right now.