Criminal defense cases cover both criminal suits — charges brought by the government to punish an individual for an act classified as a crime — and civil suits — claims brought by individuals or organizations as a dispute over rights and duties.
Most people who are charged with criminal offenses such as drug charges, theft or driving under the influence have no idea how a case progresses through the criminal court system. General procedure is the same, or at least similar, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; however details in how things are handled vary greatly between federal court and state court, as well as between different states and sometimes even different counties. I have listed below a basic outline of what happens within county courts in the state of Nebraska. The following information relates mainly to misdemeanor offenses. Nebraska’s court system is divided into two separate courts: County Court and District Court. In general, misdemeanor crimes are dealt with in County Court and felony crimes are handled at the District Court level.
(1) Arraignment/Bond Setting—this is your first criminal court hearing once you have been cited or arrested on a criminal offense. At arraignment, the judge will read you your rights, and you will enter your first plea in the case. Your choices of pleas are: guilty, not guilty, no contest and not guilty by reason of insanity. If you stand mute the judge will enter a plea of not guilty for you. If you are still in jail, the judge will also typically set a bond at this hearing. If you plead guilty or no contest at arraignment, your case is essentially over. If you plead guilty/no contest to a misdemeanor, you will either be sentenced immediately, or the judge may order a presentence investigation (PSI). If the judge orders a PSI, you will be sentenced at a later date. *On felony cases, you are typically not allowed to enter a guilty plea at your first arraignment in county court.
(2) Pretrial Hearing—at this hearing progression of the case is discussed between all parties. Often times plea agreements are reached and cases are disposed of at the pretrial hearing/conference. There are only pretrial conferences for misdemeanor cases that are set for jury trial. If you are charged with an offense that does not make you eligible for a jury trial, or you have waived your right to a jury trial, there will usually not be a pretrial conference on your case.
(3) Hearings on Motions—for most motions filed by either you or the prosecution, there will be an opportunity for a hearing. In criminal cases, probably the most popular motion that is heard by the court, is a motion to suppress evidence.
(4) Trial—you know what this is. Both sides get to present evidence in support of their side of the case. The prosecution goes first.
(5) Sentencing—if you plead guilty or no contest, or if you are found guilty at trial, you ultimately will be sentenced by the Court (i.e. judge). Sentencing is when you receive your punishment. Punishment for a criminal offense most often includes: jail, probation, fines, restitution or some combination of all of the above.