A criminal case begins with the creation of a Complaint or Indictment. A Complaint (misdemeanor) or Indictment (felony) is a written statement that alleges a violation of law by a person at particular time in a particular place. For example, On May 1, 2014 in Fairfield County, Ohio, John Smith did unlawfully take property belonging to Walmart. The Complaint/Indictment is filed with the court and a copy is served or provided to the accused. Once a Complaint/Indictment is filed and served, the case is then scheduled for the first court appearance called an arraignment.
Two primary things happen at arraignment. First, the accused (called a Defendant) provides an answer to the accusation, formally called a plea. One should always plead NOT GUILTY at arraignment, especially if not represented by an attorney. Second, at arraignment the judge sets a bond. A bond consists of money, which must be paid, and/or conditions (e.g. weekly reporting, no alcohol or drugs, no contact with alleged victim) that must be followed. A bond is given in lieu of the defendant being held in jail while the case is pending. The primary purpose of a bond is to insure that a person will return to court. The amount of the bond is usually consistent with the severity of the charge, the more severe the charge the higher the bond. However, many individuals charged with a misdemeanor will receive a Recognizance bond, which means no money must be paid as long as the individual appears at all court dates. The next court date, which is called a pretrial, follows the arraignment.
The time between the arraignment and pretrial is called the discovery phase. In the weeks and months that follow arraignment the defense attorney will obtain the evidence pertaining to the case. Typically discovery includes police reports, identification of potential witness, statements made to law enforcement, physical items and photographs. In some cases there may also be physical evidence that is examined or analyzed during the discovery phase such as DNA, fingerprint or ballistic comparisons, and chemical analysis.
The purpose of a pretrial is to: (1) discuss the general status of the case, (2) determine if there are any legal or evidentiary issues that will need to be addressed before trial, and (3) begin to explore the possibility of resolving the case. Sometimes based on what is learned during the discovery phase a resolution can be reached at the pretrial. However, more frequently cases are not resolved at pretrial, and the case begins to move toward a trial.
If there are legal or evidentiary issues in the case, those are dealt with before the trial. Common types of issues include Motions to Suppress or Daubert hearings. These legal issues are generally resolved either with a hearing before the judge or by agreement between the attorneys.
Once a trial date is set, preparation for trial begins. Trial preparation is a complex and time demanding process that can last for several months. During this phase any open discovery issues are resolved, the defense strategy is developed, and preparation for trial witnesses is completed.
Shortly before the trial date, there is commonly a settlement conference. It is at this point that a final attempt at a resolution is made, often with the assistance of the judge. If no resolution is had, then the case will proceed to trial by jury.