“I’ve been arrested, so what happens next?” I hear this question quite a bit in my practice. And it’s a good one. In life, one of the greatest fears is the fear of the unknown–and at no time is this more true than after an arrest and a night or two in jail. Following an arrest, people are concerned about a great many things such as, will they face jail time, or when will the first court date be. Moreover, folks tend to want to get the situation behind them as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, a criminal case moves much slower in real life than it does in the television, or movie world. Following an arrest on a typical misdemeanor (DWI, theft, assault, or possession of marijuana), the case is reviewed by the District Attorney’s office and if they believe there is enough evidence to prosecute the case, the case will be filed. This can take anywhere from 30 to 60 to 90 days and maybe longer if there is a backlog of cases to be reviewed. On a misdemeanor, the DA’s office has up to 2 years following the arrest to file the case.
On a felony case, the above process could take even longer. Instead of the DA’s office filing the case, in a felony the DA has to present its case to the grand jury for its members to decide whether there is enough evidence to indict the defendant (true bill) or dismiss the case (no bill). In drug cases, this process can really be slowed down if the drugs are sent to a lab for testing. On most felony cases, the DA has 5 years to get the case filed, some felonies, such as murder, have no such time limit to be filed.
Once a case is filed, the person charged with the crime will get a notice of a court date—usually within 30 days. At that first appearance the person accused does not have to make any decisions. This is usually the point where the defendant’s lawyer talks with the DA and gets a look at the offense report and requests any additional discoverable evidence that might be associated with the case—911 calls, video tapes, etc.
There may be several court appearances where the defendant’s lawyer continues to gather evidence from the DA and further negotiates with the DA, whether to reduce the charges or work out a plea recommendation. This process could take several months from the date the case filed.
Usually 3 to 4 months after the first appearance a decision has to be made, either to accept a plea negotiation or set the case for trial. If the person chooses the latter, the case will be set for trial usually 60 days down the road. When a case is called to trial, the oldest case takes priority over newer ones. So in counties with a lower volume of cases, those cases can be tried at a faster rate. For example, if a person is arrested for DWI and elects to have the case set for trial, that trial will most likely happen in Collin County 9 to 12 months after the arrest. If the offense is in Dallas County it could take up to 3 years to get to trial.
Having criminal charges hanging over your head is a frustrating thing to live with. Selecting counsel that can not only competently handle your case is only part of the equation, as having counsel that can also properly prepare you for the road ahead will ease the fear of the unknown which will help ease your frustration.