Every case is different, but below are the most common steps in a criminal case in the most common order that we see them.
A criminal case typically begins with an arrest after a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The officer may arrest the suspect with or without a warrant, depending on the circumstances. (O.C.G.A. § 17-4-20)
2. First Appearance Hearing:
After the arrest, the defendant is brought before a magistrate judge for a First Appearance Hearing, usually within 72 hours. During this hearing, the judge informs the defendant of the charges against them, and their right to counsel. Often times, a defendant will have his or her bond set at this hearing. If the charges are serious (murder, rape, trafficking, etc), then only a superior court judge can set a bond. (O.C.G.A. § 17-4-26)
3. Preliminary Hearing:
If you don’t bond out of jail after your arrest, most counties will schedule a preliminary hearing for your case (sometimes you have to request it). At the preliminary hearing, a magistrate judge will decide if there is probable cause to support the charges in your case. Even if the magistrate judge dismissed your charges at this stage, the State can still try to indict you. Some counties (e.g. Morgan County) will allow you to have a preliminary hearing even if you have bonded out. This can be a valuable tool for fighting your case.
4. Grand Jury Proceedings:
In felony cases, a grand jury is convened to determine whether there is enough evidence to indict the defendant. If the grand jury returns an indictment, the case proceeds to the next stage. If your case is not indicted within 90 days, a Superior Court judge must set a bond in your case.
Arraignment is the defendant’s first appearance in the trial court. During this hearing, the defendant is formally charged and asked to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). Some courts allow us to waive your presence at this hearing. Although the hearing itself is not usually exciting or all that important, your arraignment date starts the clock ticking on a number of very important deadlines for filing motions.
6. Pretrial Motions:
Prior to trial, the defense and prosecution may file various motions, such as motions to suppress evidence, motions to compel discovery, or motions to change the trial’s venue. These motions help shape the scope of the trial. Many, though not all, motion will be based on the discovery we receive in your case. (O.C.G.A. § 17-16-1)
If the case goes to trial, both sides present their evidence and arguments. The jury (or judge, if it is a bench trial) decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will hold a sentencing hearing to determine the appropriate punishment, which may include imprisonment, fines, probation, or other sanctions. (O.C.G.A. §§ 17-10-1 to 17-10-7)
9. Direct Appeal:
After a conviction and sentencing, the defendant has the right to appeal the case to a higher court. In Georgia, this is typically the Georgia Court of Appeals or the Georgia Supreme Court. The appellate court will review the case for legal errors, and if any are found, it may order a new trial, modify the sentence, or reverse the conviction. (O.C.G.A. § 5-6-1)
This is a general overview of the stages of a criminal case in Georgia. Specifics may vary depending on the circumstances and the charges. For more information, give Swingle Levin Law a call.