The basics of the criminal justice system are uniform among most states, but certain procedures can vary if you're accused of a crime in Delaware.
What Happens with an Arrest?
If a police officer sees you commit a crime, or if he has probable cause to believe that your conduct is criminal, you can be arrested. Otherwise, you can only be arrested through an arrest warrant issued by a judge on probable cause. At the time of your arrest, the officer will inform you of your right to remain silent and that what you say can be used against you in court. He must also tell you that you have the right to have an attorney present during questioning and that the court court appoint an attorney for you if you can't afford one.
After your arrest, an officer will take you to a detention facility or jail where your personal effects are taken from you. You will also be fingerprinted and photographed before being placed in a cell or holding room.
At your first court appearance, a judge may set a bail bond based on your criminal history, risk of flight and any danger you present to the community. In Delaware, you can be released on a signature bond which involves no money, or on a cash bond, unsecured bond or secured bond after signing a promise that you'll return to court and follow any conditions the court imposes.
Your Arraignment and Plea
Your arraignment is typically held within 24 hours after your arrest, unless your arrest occurred on a weekend. Arraignments take place in the court of common pleas or in the municipal court. The judge gives you information regarding the charges against you and advises you of your right to a jury trial. You can also choose to have your case heard by a single judge. You must enter a plea. If you plead guilty, you give up your right to a trial and to remain silent. A plea of "nolo contendre" means you're not contesting the charges and the court considers this a guilty plea. Pleading nolo contendre means that the criminal record of your case can't be used as evidence if anyone files a civil lawsuit against you. If you plead not guilty, it forces the state to prove its case against you at trial.
The overwhelming majority of criminal cases are settled before trial through a plea bargain or a negotiated agreement between the defendant and the assistant attorney general. This usually involves a voluntary guilty plea to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence. If the state drops the charges against you, the prosecution files a "nolle prosequi," a notice that it will not pursue certain charges against you.
Preliminary Hearings and Grand Jury Proceedings
If you make bail, you're entitled to a preliminary hearing within 20 days of your arrest. If you haven't made bail, this period is shortened to 10 days. At the bail hearing, the judge determines if there's probable cause to believe a crime was committed and that you committed it. If so, your case will be bound over for consideration by the grand jury. If your preliminary hearing is waived, your case is sent directly to the superior court for trial. If you're charged with a felony, you have the right to demand an indictment by the grand jury.
Trial and Sentencing
At trial, the assistant attorney general has the burden to prove to the court that all charges against you are true beyond a reasonable doubt. Twelve jurors must find you guilty by an unanimous verdict. If you have a court or bench trial, the judge alone decides your guilt based on the same standard of proof. If you plead guilty or if you're found guilty, the judge may order a pre-sentence investigation, particularly in felony cases. This investigation examines your family life, community ties, employment history and criminal record. The court might also listen to recommendations from the investigating officer and the victim before handing down a sentence.
Hiring a Criminal Lawyer is Essential
Not all criminal procedures are the same in every state. Hire a Delaware criminal defense attorney if you are arrested and charged with a crime.