This article explains what happens in a typical District Court case, and how you can prepare for it. Please read it over now so you will have an idea of where your case is headed and what to expect at your court dates.
How Cases Begin
There are many different ways you can get charged with a criminal offense in District Court. For example, you can be arrested and booked by an officer, given a summons or have charges filed against you by a civilian. For the purposes of this post, we will deal with the two main categories – arrest and summons.
If you are served with a summons, you will be given a court date to appear in court. In most jurisdictions in Southern Maryland this first court date will be a preliminary inquiry. At a preliminary inquiry, a judge will inform you of the charges against you and your right to have an attorney. Take this court date seriously! A failure to appear can result in a bench warrant for your arrest. At your preliminary inquiry you are provided with your next court date, which will be your trial date.
If you are arrested, the process can be very different. The police must promptly present you to a judicial officer for a review of the charges and your bond status. Often, this means an informal hearing in front of a commissioner for a preliminary determination of bond. If you are not released by a commissioner (or cannot pay the bond set), you will be provided a bond review hearing in front of a judge.
At the bond review, the judge will explain the charges against you and advise you of your right to an attorney. Do not make statements about your case during a bond review. This is a common mistake. Often defendants want to immediately “tell their side of the story” without realizing the ramifications of doing so. These proceedings are recorded, and any statements can be used against you down the road. Making statements about your case at this stage will only limit the defenses potentially available to you. At a bond review the judge will also review the bond set by the commissioner, make a final determination of your bond status and set a trial date.
In Circuit Court, there are many court dates to worry about. Preliminary hearings, status dates, motions dates, etc… However, in District Court you will only be given one court date. Many defendants assume that if they elect a trial it will be scheduled on another day in the future. That is not the way it works in District Court – your court date is your trial date. This makes it very important to be prepared for your case and retain an attorney before your court date.
When your trial date will be scheduled is based on many factors including court availability, officer schedules and caseloads. The typical case will be scheduled between 30-60 days after the bond review or preliminary inquiry.
In most jurisdiction, both the State and Defense will be given one continuance. This is not a guarantee that a judge will postpone your case, however it is the “rule of thumb”. Postponements can be made for good cause. Good cause may include a witness being unavailable, discovery disputes between the parties or requests for further investigation.
Judges may decide not to grant you a continuance to retain an attorney if you were previously advised of your right at a preliminary inquiry or bond review. It is very important to be prepared and accompanied by an attorney for your court date.
At the trial date you have several options. You can decide to plead guilty, have a trial or pray a jury trial to Circuit Court. Depending on the strength of your case, any prior criminal record and the jurisdiction, any of these three options may be best for you. This is an important decision, and should be made after consultation with an attorney.
At your trial date your attorney will check in with the prosecutor on your behalf. If you are represented by attorney you do not have to worry about checking in. Your attorney will assess the plea offer from the prosecutor, and discuss with you whether to plead guilty or proceed to a trial.
This is a high-pressured environment, do not go to your trial date alone. The wrong decision can have major consequences to your case and potentially your freedom.
If you enter a plea of guilty or are found guilty after a trial, the case will proceed to sentencing. While most sentencings in District Court occur the same day as the trial date, your attorney may request a separate sentencing date. Finishing a substance abuse program, busy work schedules and medical considerations are a few of the reasons you may wish to request a deferred sentencing.
Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Any attorney who promises that you will not go to jail is not giving you straight advice (unless the judge has already bound themselves to that sentence). Make sure you understand the maximum penalties and all possible outcomes before getting to this stage in your case.
While this is a general overview of the path most District Court cases take, it does not substitute for a consultation with an attorney to go over your specific circumstances.
Everyone’s case is different. If you have any questions about where your case is headed, give me a call. Our Criminal Consultations are 100% free and confidential. The best thing you can do for your case is to get ahead of the curve,