Process of a Criminal Case
The process of what occurs
during a criminal case may be confusing to a victim or witness. The
following summary strives to help explain the general processes that a
criminal case follows through Shiawassee County’s court system. (Note
that other counties across the State may not exactly follow these
particular steps or procedures.)
Commencement of a Criminal Case
A Crime is Committed and the Police Investigate
the report of a commission of a crime, the police will conduct an
investigation. The investigation process may be simple and relatively
quick, or it may take an extended period of time, depending upon the
facts and circumstances of the case. The investigation may include
interviews with the victim, witnesses, and suspects, the collection of
physical evidence, visiting, viewing, photographing, or measuring the
crime scene, identifying suspects through line ups, executing search
warrants, obtaining investigative subpoenas, or any of many other
possible investigative techniques.
A police officer may arrest a suspect on-the-spot without an arrest warrant if:
- the crime was committed in the officer’s presence;
police officer has probable cause to believe that a certain misdemeanor
was committed (even if the officer did not see the crime occur); or
police officer has probable cause to believe that any felony was
committed (even if the officer did not see the crime occur).
the officer arrests without a warrant upon probable cause or because
he/she observed the crime’s commission, or if the police officer would
like to obtain an arrest warrant, the police officer will submit a
warrant request to the prosecutor’s office, suggesting the charges the
officer would like authorized.
Warrant Request Reviewed by Prosecutor
cases begin with a warrant request. This is generally the first time
that the prosecutor’s office is involved in a case, unless the
prosecutor has previously reviewed a search warrant or petition for
investigative subpoena. At this stage, the prosecutor determines
whether a person should be charged with a crime and, if so, what crime.
The prosecutor must thoroughly review all reports and records
concerning the case, including witness statements. The prosecutor also
reviews the suspect’s prior criminal history or traffic record.
Occasionally, the prosecutor sends the case back to the police to
conduct additional investigation.
Warrant or Summons Issued
the Prosecutor or his assistants can issue a charge if she/he
reasonably believes that probable cause exists that the suspect
committed the offense, the Prosecutor and her staff typically apply a
higher standard—whether the charge can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
This is because the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is the
standard by which a jury must determine a criminal defendant’s guilt or
innocence. If the prosecutor believes that additional investigation may
help in meeting this burden before a jury, the prosecutor will exercise
her/his discretion in sending the case back to the police for further
investigation. If the assistant prosecutor believes that the person
being charged needs to be and legally may be arrested by the police, the
assistant prosecutor will authorize the issuance of an arrest warrant.
If the assistant prosecutor does not believe the person needs to be
arrested or may not legally be arrested, the assistant prosecutor will
authorize the issuance of a summons.
Suspect Arrested (if not already in custody)
delay between the crime date and the defendant’s arrest on an
authorized warrant can sometimes take a lengthy amount of time. This is
sometimes extended if the defendant has left the State of Michigan or
if the defendant’s whereabouts are unknown.
If the assistant
prosecutor has authorized the issuance of a summons, the District Court
will typically mail a summons (a court order to appear for an
arraignment) to the defendant at a specified date and time.
District Court Arraignment
is the first court appearance for any criminal defendant, whether
charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. Once arrested and charged, the
suspect appears in the 66th District Court for arraignment.
If the defendant has not hired his or her own lawyer before the
arraignment, an attorney from the Shiawassee County Public Defender's
Office will meet with the defendant and discuss representation with
them. The public defender will typically appear with the defendant for
the arraignment and tell the court whether the defendant is requesting
an appointed lawyer or whether they will hire their own attorney.
the arraignment, the judge or magistrate will tell the defendant what
the charges are and the maximum penalty if convicted, and the defendant
is advised of his/her constitutional rights to a jury or bench trial,
appointed attorney, presumption of innocence, and other rights. The
charging document is called a “Complaint.” The conditions and amount of
bond are determined by the judge or magistrate. In some
cases—generally based on the nature of the charge—the court will impose
conditions on any bond, such as no contact with the victim of the
crime. Bond is sent in almost all cases, but it is up to the
defendant’s resources to post this bail money, which allows him to be
released pending trial.
Beyond this initial District Court
arraignment, the further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether
the defendant is charged with a felony or a misdemeanor.
Misdemeanor Pretrial Procedures
Misdemeanor cases remain entirely within the 66th District
Court. At the misdemeanor arraignment, the defendant will be given a
chance to enter a plea to the charge: plead guilty, plead not guilty, or
stand mute. If a defendant “stands mute” (i.e., remains silent) the
court enters a not guilty plea on the defendant’s behalf. If the
defendant pleads guilty, the Judge may sentence the defendant on the
spot or may reschedule the case for a sentencing date, which will give
the probation department time to prepare a pre-sentence investigation
report. This report would include information about the background of
the defendant, the circumstances of the crime, and would likely include a
sentencing recommendation for the court. If the defendant stands mute
or pleads not guilty, the case is scheduled for a pretrial conference.
Pretrial Conferences are
meetings between the prosecutor and the defendant or his/her attorney
to determine whether the case will go to trial or will be resolved with a
plea. These meetings typically focus on resolving the case short of
trial. The Judge and the witnesses are not directly involved in
misdemeanor pretrial conferences. If a plea bargain is going to be
offered to the defendant by the prosecutor’s office, it is done at this
conference. If it looks as though a misdemeanor case will not resolve
with a plea, the pretrial conference is often used to discuss any legal
or evidentiary issues that may exist in the case.
County, if the misdemeanor case is not resolved at the first pretrial,
the case will usually be scheduled for a second "final" pretrial before
the scheduled jury trial.
Felony Pretrial Procedures
felony arraignment in District Court, the defendant does not plead
guilty or not guilty. Instead, the defendant is advised of his right to
a probable cause conference which will be held between 7 and 14 days
after the arraignment and his right to a preliminary examination to be
held within 21 days of the arraignment in District Court.
A Felony Probable Cause Conference
is the first step in a felony criminal case after the District Court
arraignment. This conference is a meeting between the defense attorney
and the prosecuting attorney to discuss whether a preliminary
examination will be held or whether it will be waived. At this
conference, it is not uncommon for plea bargains to be discussed along
with any evidentiary, legal, or other potential issues in the case.
A Felony Preliminary Examination is
a contested hearing held before a District Court Judge within 21 days
of the District Court arraignment. The preliminary examination is often
called a “probable cause hearing,” because the District Court Judge
must determine whether the prosecutor can establish reasonable suspicion
based upon articulable facts that the charged crimes were committed and
that the defendant was the person who committed them. Because the
burden of proof is much less than the burden at trial, the prosecutor
will not typically call all of the trial witnesses at the “prelim.”
Generally, just a small fraction of trial witnesses are called,
typically including the victim and the police. The defendant, through
his/her attorney, may cross examine the witnesses and present his/her
own evidence. If probable cause is established, the defendant is bound
over to (i.e., sent to) the Circuit Court for trial. If the Judge
decides that there is not probable cause that the defendant committed
the charged crimes, the Judge can bind the case over on different
charges, can reduce the charges to misdemeanors for trial in District
Court, or can dismiss the case. A defendant often concedes the
existence of probable cause by waiving his/her right to the preliminary
examination. Most felonies arrive in Circuit Court after this kind of
A Circuit Court Arraignment typically
happens immediately after the defendant is bound over to the Circuit
Court by the District Court Judge. The District Court Judge (sitting as
a temporary Circuit Court Judge) will give formal notice to the
defendant of the charges contained in the “Information,” the Circuit
Court charging document. The defendant is again advised of his/her
constitutional rights and may now enter a plea to the charge (guilty,
not guilty, or stand mute).
A Felony Pretrial Conference is
typically held on a Friday morning at 8:00 am within one or two weeks
after the Circuit Court arraignment. This conference is a meeting
between the prosecutor and the defense attorney to determine whether the
case will go to trial or be resolved with a plea.
A Felony Status Conference is
scheduled typically 4 to 6 weeks before trial for the prosecutor and
the defense attorney to again discuss whether the case will go to trial
or be resolved with a plea. If the case cannot be resolved with a plea,
any pretrial motions or other legal issues may be discussed at this
A Felony Settlement Conference is
scheduled typically 1 week before the felony case is set for trial.
This is the final meeting between the defense attorney and the
prosecutor to determine whether the case may be resolved with a plea or
trial. The settlement conferences are held in the Judge’s chambers to
permit the court to weigh in on any last minute issues that may be
present in the case.
A Felony Plea Cutoff Hearing, often called a "PONR" (pronounced PONN-er),
or "point of no return" hearing, is a hearing held in court during
which the prosecutor will advise the judge the full extent of the
prosecutor's best plea offer. During this hearing, the trial court will
take steps to ensure that the defendant understands the full extent of
the prosecutor's last best offer and then ask the defendant whether they
desire to accept that plea offer. If the defendant rejects the plea
offer from the prosecutor, the case will proceed to jury trial. The
purpose of the plea cutoff hearing is to ensure the protection of the
defendant's rights under Missouri v Frye, 566 US 134
(2012), namely, that the defendant has a knowing opportunity to
understand any plea offers and to make an informed decision whether or
not to accept or reject that offer. There is no obligation for the
prosecutor to extend a plea offer at the plea cutoff hearing or at any
A trial is an adversarial proceeding in
which the prosecutor must present evidence to a judge or jury to prove
the defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant is not
required to prove his/her innocence or present any evidence, but may
challenge the accuracy of the prosecutor’s evidence. Before the close
of the proofs in any criminal case, a defendant is presumed innocent,
meaning that he/she must be found not guilty unless the prosecutor is
able to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by
legally admissible evidence.
Both the defendant and the prosecutor
(who represents the People of the State of Michigan) have the right to a
trial by jury. Sometimes, both sides agree to let a Judge listen to
the evidence and decide the case without a jury. This is called a
“bench trial.” In a jury trial, a jury of citizens of the county decide
the facts of the case and determine the defendant’s guilt or
innocence. The jury is the “trier of fact.” In a bench trial, the
Judge fills this role.
After all of the evidence is presented, the
judge or jury determines whether the evidence proved beyond a
reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
Here are the general steps in a jury trial:
Residents of Shiawassee County are randomly selected from a Secretary
of State list of licensed drivers, and are summoned into the court as
2. A blind draw selects twelve people from that group in felonies (six in misdemeanor District Court cases).
3. The judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney question the jurors during voir dire about their background and beliefs.
The attorneys are permitted a limited a number of preemptory challenges
to various jurors (or an unlimited number of challenges for good
5. After twelve acceptable jurors remain (or six for
misdemeanors), the Judge administers the oath to the jury and reads
basic instructions about the trial process and certain legal principles.
6. The prosecutor gives an opening statement to outline the People’s case and evidence to the jury.
7. The defense may give an opening statement to the jury, or wait until later in the trial.
8. The prosecutor calls witnesses, which the defense may cross examine, and admits evidence.
9. The People close their proofs.
10. The defense may call witnesses, if it wants, and the prosecutor may cross-examine them.
11. The defense rests.
The prosecutor may present “rebuttal” witnesses/evidence to challenge
evidence presented by the defendant during his/her proofs.
13. The prosecutor rests.
14. The prosecutor presents a closing argument to the jury.
15. The defense attorney presents a closing argument to the jury.
16. The prosecutor presents a rebuttal closing argument to the jury to respond to the defendant’s attorney’s closing argument.
The judge gives the jury detailed legal instructions about the charged
crimes, the deliberation process, and how to render a verdict.
18. The jury deliberates and returns a verdict.
If the defendant is convicted, the judge will then determine whether to
revoke bond or allow the defendant to remain free on bond pending
sentencing. In either case, the judge will order the Michigan
Department of Corrections to prepare a presentence investigation report
that the court may use to determine the appropriate sentence.
Presentence Investigation and Report
District Court’s probation department (for misdemeanors) or the
Michigan Department of Corrections (for felonies) prepares a report for
the judge summarizing the crime and the defendant’s personal and
criminal backgrounds. Generally, the victim is contacted for a
recommendation of sentence. The probation officer concludes the report
with a recommended sentence.
Michigan varies with the crime and can be the most confusing part of the
criminal process. Most often, sentences are at the judge’s
discretion. The judge will consider the information in the presentence
report (subject to the factual corrections by the parties), additional
evidence offered by the parties, comments by the victim, and other
information relevant to the judge’s sentencing decision. For felonies,
the Circuit Court Judge will consult the Michigan Sentencing
Guidelines. These guidelines are a statutorily established set of rules
for determining the appropriate term of incarceration in felony cases.
The guidelines factor in aspects of the defendant’s criminal conduct
and his/her prior record to determine the minimum jail/prison sentence.
The Judge may consider different alternatives such as a fine,
probation, community service, or a sentence to jail or prison, or any
combination of these.
The judge must also order the defendant to
make restitution to any victims who have suffered financial harm from
the commission of the crime. If the amount of restitution is disputed
by the defendant, the court may schedule the case for a restitution
hearing, whereat the parties present evidence as to the loss suffered by
Appeals from the District Court are
heard in the Circuit Court. Appeals from the Circuit Court are heard in
the Michigan Court of Appeals. Appeals from the Court of Appeals are
heard in the Michigan Supreme Court.
There are three kinds of appeals: (1) interlocutory, (2) appeals of right, and (3) appeals by leave.
Interlocutory Appeals occur when a party appeals a trial judge’s decision before the case has come to trial or before the trial has finished.
Appeals of Right occur
after a final order has been entered by the trial court (either a
sentencing order, or an order dismissing charges). An amendment to the
Michigan Constitution has eliminated most appeals of right when a
defendant pleads guilty. Most appeals of right are now focused on the
sentence imposed or allegations of error in a jury trial.
Appeals by Leave occur
when an appeal of right is not available (for example, after a plea, or
when an appeal of right was not filed on time). The appellate court
has the discretion to reject the appeal or can “grant leave,” meaning it
will take the appeal.
On an appeal, the prosecutor and the
defense file briefs that summarize the facts of the case, frame the
legal issues to be decided, and present arguments (supported by
constitutional, statutory, or prior case decisions) to persuade the
court that their position is the correct one. Either party can request
that the case be scheduled for oral arguments before the appellate
court. The appellate court will eventually issue a written opinion (or
several opinions if the judges disagree).