January 30, 2014
Two common questions I hear from those facing criminal charges: (1) “So, how does this process work?” and (2) “What should I expect to happen on that court date?” To help clear up some of the confusion and uncertainty regarding the Oklahoma criminal judicial process, I have dedicated this post to explaining the process in both misdemeanor and felony proceedings in Oklahoma district court.
Prior to the First Court Setting:
A person is charged with a misdemeanor (or felony) by the filing of the “Information,” which is a document formally charging the person with an offense. A warrant for the person’s arrest will be issued by a judge. A bail amount will be attached to the warrant upon its issuance by a judge. The arrest warrant will be satisfied upon the arrest of the accused, or upon the surrender of the accused to law enforcement. Many people with an outstanding warrant can hire a bail bondsman, and do a “walk through” to get rid of the warrant and avoid spending any time in jail.
Once the accused has satisfied the warrant for their arrest, he or she is given a date to appear before a magistrate judge (commonly referred to as a “special judge”) for arraignment on the charges in the Information. At arraignment, the charges in the Information are read to the accused, and a plea of “not guilty” is normally entered by the magistrate on behalf of the accused. The amount of bail is sometimes argued at arraignment.
At arraignment, the accused is given a date for a disposition setting. A disposition setting is exactly what it sounds like-where the outcome of the case is decided. The accused has three options at disposition: (1) plea to a negotiated deal with the State, (2) blind plea (plead guilty and let the judge decide sentencing), or (3) set the case for trial.
Unless the accused chooses to go to trial, his or her case will be concluded at a disposition setting. Often a person will have more than one disposition date prior to his or her case being resolved.
A trial on a misdemeanor charge(s) is held before a six-member jury. The verdict of the jury must be unanimous-all six agree the accused is guilty or all six agree the accused is not guilty. If found guilty of the charge(s), the accused may request to be sentenced by the jury (most common) or by the judge.
Prior to Initial Arraignment & Initial Arraignment:
The process prior to initial arraignment, and at initial arraignment, in felony cases is the same as in misdemeanor cases. However, in a felony case, the accused has an initial arraignment and a formal arraignment (discussed in more detail below).
Pre-Preliminary Hearing Court Setting:
The court setting following initial arraignment is known by different names depending upon the county in which the accused is being prosecuted. Some counties refer to this setting as a “pre-preliminary hearing docket,” others call it a “status conference,” or a “preliminary hearing conference.” Despite the disparity in names from county to county, what occurs at this court setting is the same in every county. The accused will usually receive a plea offer from the State, which he or she can accept or reject. If the accused rejects the offer, the case will be set for preliminary hearing before a magistrate judge.
In Oklahoma, all persons charged with a felony offense(s) have a right to a preliminary hearing before a magistrate judge. The accused may waive the right to a preliminary hearing if he or she so chooses. A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing, where the State has the burden of presenting evidence to establish that probable cause exists to believe the crime charged was committed, and that probable cause exists to believe the person charged committed said crime. If the magistrate judge finds the State has met its burden, the accused is bound over for trial.
Within thirty days of being bound over for trial, the accused will appear before a district judge for formal arraignment. At formal arraignment, the accused will enter a plea to the charges against him or her. The accused can plead guilty and take an offer from the State, blind plea to the district judge, or enter a plea of not guilty.
If the accused enters a plea of not guilty at formal arraignment, some counties immediately set a date for trial. Other counties have another court setting between formal arraignment and trial, at which a trial date is set.
A trial on a felony charge(s) is held before a twelve person jury. As with a misdemeanor trial, a verdict of guilty or not guilty must be unanimous, and sentencing can be by either the jury or the judge.
In cases where the accused has prior felony convictions that are appropriate for consideration during sentencing, the trial is usually conducted in two stages. The first stage deals solely with the determination of guilt or innocence of the crime(s) charged. If the accused is found guilty, a second stage is held to determine the sentence of the accused.
If you have further questions regarding this topic, please post your inquiry and I will do my best to answer it. If you have a suggestion for next week’s topic, let me know!