While the legal process is similar when someone is accused of a crime, there will be slight differences in each state. Here's a look at what happens in Florida.
People can be arrested if there is a good reason (probable cause) to believe they committed a crime. Police usually do this by gathering evidence and getting an arrest warrant. However, an officer doesn't need a warrant if he sees a crime committed. Before they begin questioning, officers must tell the suspect that he can refuse to talk to investigators and can have an attorney. Those Miranda rights are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. Cases can be thrown out if suspects aren't advised of these rights.
Once arrested, the accused is booked. Suspects are photographed and fingerprinted. Officials ask for information such as birth date and address and check to see if the person has any criminal history. Personal items such as money and jewelry are taken for safekeeping.
Within 48 hours of arrest, a suspect in Florida goes to court for an initial appearance. A judge appoints an attorney if the accused doesn't have one, and then determines if there was probable cause for the arrest. The judge also sets bail, and the amount can range from nothing to millions of dollars.
Entering a Plea
An arraignment hearing is usually within 30 days of the first appearance. At that hearing, the suspect will plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. The latter means the accused is not answering the charges at this point. The judge also can review bail.
Next, a state's attorney reviews the case and decides if there is enough evidence to proceed. If there enough evidence, the suspect will be formally charged in an information — that's a formal accusation that a crime has been committed. This must happen within 75 days of arrest on a misdemeanor, 175 for a felony. If the suspect is being held in jail, the decision must be made within 30 days.
Many criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements. The prosecutor agrees to let the defendant plead guilty or no contest to a lesser crime or in exchange a lighter sentence. Judges are not required to accept agreements, though usually they do.
Preliminary Hearing Options
In Florida, suspects have the right to a preliminary hearing within 21 days of arrest. The prosecution outlines its case, and the judge decides if there's enough reason for the case to continue to trial. After the preliminary, a suspect is arraigned again. If a suspect has been indicted by a grand jury — in Florida, that usually happens only for capital cases or in corruption investigations — there is no preliminary hearing.
Going to Trial
In Florida, people are entitled to a trial before a jury of common citizens. Misdemeanor trials usually are before judges, and felonies can be, too.
At trial, the prosecution and defense present evidence. The jury then decides. If the jury can't reach a unanimous verdict, the case can be tried again before new jurors.
The judge usually sentences misdemeanor defendants immediately after the verdict. Felony sentencing usually is set for a later date to give probation departments time to conduct an investigation.
Consult a Lawyer
This article is intended as an overview. If you're suspected of a crime, contact a Florida lawyer as quickly as possible. A defense attorney will explain your legal rights and options and guide you toward the best decisions.