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How A Criminal Case Moves Through the Courts in Arizona

February 10, 2023

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Arizona, you probably have a lot of questions. The court process—from the time you are charged to the time you are sentenced or have your case dismissed—depends on a lot of different factors, including the court calendar, judge’s availability, and the legal documents filed along the way by your criminal defense attorney and the prosecutor. Here’s a brief look at how a criminal case moves through the courts in the state of Arizona:

Arrest, Charges, and Initial Appearance

Once you have been officially arrested, which means that you have been read your rights and informed that you are under arrest, you will be charged. Your charges can change throughout the life of your case depending on plea deals, negotiations, the strength of the evidence against you, and any new evidence that is found. Your initial charges will be outlined for you and your attorney in official court documents. After being arrested, you must be brought before a judge within 24 hours for an initial appearance hearing or be released. At the initial appearance, the judge will confirm your contact information, read you the charges that have been filed against you, and ask you if you have an attorney. If you don’t have an attorney at this time, the court will appoint you a public defender or court-appointed attorney. 

Setting of Bail and/or Detention

At your initial appearance, you will either be released pending your next hearing, or the judge will set bail. If you are released, the judge will set very specific conditions of release that you must comply with, or risk re-arrest and further charges being filed. To determine if you will be released or if bail will be set, a judge considers the nature of the crime, any prior arrests or charges, and your character. Under Arizona law, the majority of crimes are “bailable as a matter of right,” meaning that you must be granted bail, or the judge must outline very specific reasons why bail was denied.

If a judge believes probable cause exists that you have committed a serious felony and you pose a danger to the safety of others, or that you are a flight risk and may not appear at your next hearing or trial, he will not set a bail amount. The judge will consider many, many factors when determining whether bail will be set, and the amount of your bail. Not all those reasons will be explained, but your attorney can help you understand the process. If bail is set, you will be detained in jail or a holding area until it is paid. If bail is not paid, you will remain in jail until your next hearing. 

Preliminary Hearing

The court may set a preliminary hearing after your initial appearance. When it is set depends on the court’s calendar and case backlog. You may be before a different judge for your preliminary hearing than you were at your initial appearance. At a preliminary hearing, the judge hears any available evidence and testimony from witnesses and/or victims. If the judge determines that there is enough evidence to prove you did commit a crime, you will be held for trial and an arraignment date will be set. 

At an arraignment hearing, you may be before yet another different judge. You will have the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. A plea of no contest means that you aren’t admitting guilt, but you do admit that all the facts alleged in your charging documents, complaint, or indictment are correct. If you plead not guilty, the judge will set a date for trial. If you plead guilty or no contest, the judge will set a date for sentencing.

Plea Agreements

Your attorney has the power to negotiate a plea agreement with the prosecutor. A plea agreement is an official court document agreed upon by you and the prosecution in which you admit to certain charges or facts in exchange for either a reduced sentence, or a more favorable sentence than you might get if the case proceeds to a jury trial. It is basically a chance for you to avoid the stress and delay of a jury trial and accept your sentence so that you can move on with your life. A plea agreement can include jail time, prison time, probation, fines, community service, and other conditions. Your attorney can help you decide if accepting a plea agreement is in your best interests. Most plea agreements have a time limit set on acceptance, so you will only have a certain amount of time to decide.

Motions and Hearings

Before your trial date or sentencing date, both your attorney and the prosecuting attorney have the right to file motions, pleadings, and other legal documents. These may outline evidence, introduce new evidence, or present a record of witness testimony. Motions may also be filed that ask the judge to rule on certain things, such as changing the trial date, allowing expert testimony, allowing people to testify via deposition or telephonically, or setting other matters for hearing. Any time a motion is filed, the opposing party has the right to file a response or request that the matters outlined in the motion be set for hearing in front of the judge. All of this can end up delaying your trial or sentencing date. Your attorney should give you copies of all documents filed and explain what they are. 

Trial – Bench vs Jury

Your case can be set for bench trial or jury trial. A bench trial means that there is no jury, and the trial plays out in front of the judge only. The judge is the only one who makes a ruling as to whether you are found guilty or not guilty. A jury trial is a trial before a jury of your peers. The jury determines if you are found guilty or not guilty. A trial can last between one day and weeks or even months. 

Verdict and Sentencing

The judge will either present his verdict or call on the jury foreman to present the jury’s verdict. The judge then enters a judgment of verdict into the official court record. If you are found not guilty, you are immediately released from custody and the matter is concluded. If you are found guilty, the judge will set a date for sentencing. You will either remain in custody or be released until your sentencing date. At your sentencing hearing, the judge will consider any motions and pre-sentencing reports presented. Your attorney and the prosecuting attorney may present further arguments. The judge will then enter an official sentence that may include jail time, prison time, or probation. 

Have you or a Loved One Been Charged with a Crime in Arizona? Call Janet Altschuler Today.
If you have been charged with a crime in Arizona, you are entitled to a fair legal defense. You should hire a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible, to preserve your rights and give you the best chance of a favorable outcome in the court system or at trial. Janet Altschuler is an experienced criminal defense attorney who used to work as a prosecutor in Arizona. She knows how the court systems work and can thoroughly explain what you can expect if you are charged with a crime. If you want to know more or have questions, call us today at 520-247-1789 or 520-200-5003 to schedule a free consultation.

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