For many people charged with crimes and their family members, the scariest part of the experience is not understanding the process.
They have many questions about how a case will proceed, what each different court date is for, and what they should do to prepare for those court dates or participate in preparing their defense, and finding reliable answers can be almost impossible.
Even the most seasoned criminal attorney can encounter difficulty dealing with the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure. The term criminal procedure refers to the criminal process steps the judicial system must follow after your arrest.
For non-lawyers, learning the ins and outs of Florida criminal procedure typically requires first-hand experience in the court system. But even then, the experience can vary from case to case.
Luckily, having an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand the Florida criminal procedure steps, even if you’ve never been arrested before.
If you’re wondering which of the criminal procedure steps triggers the need for a criminal defense attorney, the answer is easy: AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
Whether you are arrested, served with a search warrant, receive a notice to appear, or just suspect that you may be under investigation, as soon as you have reason to believe you are suspected or could be charged with a crime, you should secure the services of a criminal defense lawyer.
Step One: Arrest or Notice to Appear
A criminal case in Florida can begin in one of two ways: arrest or being issued a notice to appear. Florida authorizes law enforcement officers to make an arrest if they witness you committing a crime or if they have probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. Additionally, police can arrest you if you have an active arrest warrant.
Alternatively, an officer can issue a notice to appear in court (Rule 3.125) in lieu of arrest. The notice to appear means you have to show up for court at the designated time and date.
Occasionally a notice to appear will be delivered by your Clerk of the Court. This happens in cases where a police officer completed an incident report but did not make an arrest, and the prosecutor later decides to pursue charges.
Regardless of whether a notice to appear is issued by a law enforcement officer or the Clerk of the Court, if you fail to appear, the judge will issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
Step Two: First Appearance
This step applies to people who are actually arrested but have not bonded out of jail or been released on their own recognizance. If you are still in jail, you will get a first appearance in front of a judge within 24-48 hours of your arrest.
At first appearance, the judge tells you what you are being charged with, determines if you are indigent and need counsel appointed, and decides if you can be released from jail and under what conditions.
The judge may release someone from jail on your own recognizance, set a bail amount to secure release, or hold them in jail on no bond in the most serious cases.
The judge may also order special conditions as a part of any pretrial release, such as requiring a defendant to submit to electronic monitoring, report to pre-trial supervision (which is similar to serving probation), or prohibiting any contact between the defendant and co-defendants, witnesses, or victims involved with the case.
Having an attorney present at first appearance to advocate for a personal recognizance bond can mean the difference between walking out of jail with no strings attached and paying thousands of dollars to bail out. Florida Statutes Section 903.046 lays out the purpose of bail and the criteria for determining its amount.
Step Three: Arraignment
Defendants who bonded out of jail quickly or who were served a notice to appear in lieu of arrest appear in court for the first time at their arraignment hearing. For people who were arrested and taken to jail, their arraignment date is typically 3-4 weeks after their arrest. This timeline holds whether or not they bond out of jail.
If someone has hired an attorney for their case, they usually do not need to appear at their arraignment. If they have not hired an attorney, then they must appear at arraignment or the judge will issue a warrant for their arrest.
At the arraignment, the judge reads the charges and advises defendants of their right to an attorney. This is also a defendant’s first chance to enter a formal plea, whether it is not guilty, guilty, or no contest.
Most defendants enter a not guilty plea at this early stage in the process so they have time to review the evidence and talk to a criminal defense attorney about their case and best options. If someone pleads guilty or no contest at arraignment, they are giving up their right to fight the case or try to achieve the best result.
Step Four: Discovery & Pre-Trial Conferences
After an attorney is hired, they will conduct discovery and attempt to locate evidence that absolves you of the charges levied against you. “Discovery” means obtaining all the evidence possessed by the State and sharing any evidence with the State that may help the defense.
During this time, the attorney will review the evidence for strengths, weaknesses, and legal issues, and use any leverage they find to negotiate with the prosecutor for a favorable plea agreement. (A “plea agreement” is the result of negotiations between a defendant and the State and is basically a settlement of the case.)
Depending on the seriousness and complexity of a case, the discovery process can take anywhere from several months to over a year to complete. Every 4 to 6 weeks throughout this process, the case will be scheduled for a pre-trial conference (or status conference).
That conference is a court date that allows the judge the opportunity to make sure the case is moving forward as it should and allows the lawyers to update the judge on the progress of the case, or alert the judge to any conflicts or evidentiary issues.
Depending on the judge, jurisdiction, and status of the case, a defendant may not be required to be present for pre-trial conferences. Always consult with an attorney to determine when presence in court is required.
Step Five: Plea Negotiation
Throughout the course of most cases, attorneys for both sides typically attempt to find out whether they can resolve the case through negotiation and compromise. In a criminal case, this process is known as plea negotiation. This process can begin as early as the first appearance and sometimes continue even after a trial has begun.
If, after discovery and negotiation, a favorable plea offer is obtained, a defendant may accept that offer by entering a guilty or no contest plea at the pre-trial conference or other court hearing.
In order to accept a plea offer, a defendant must agree to give up certain rights, such as their right to a trial and their right to force the State to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. According to the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 3.170(a), the court must approve any plea agreement.
If a plea agreement is unable to be reached, a defendant has two options: to plead “open” to the court or to take the case to trial. If a defendant elects to plead open, this means they do not have an agreement with the state.
They are agreeing to no longer fight the charges and are choosing to leave sentencing completely up to the discretion of the judge. If a defendant elects to take their case to trial, that is where they can formally contest the charges against them.
An experienced criminal attorney can help clients understand when it is best to accept a plea offer, plead open to the court, or take a case to trial. However, it is the defendant – and the defendant, alone – who makes the determination whether they should enter a guilty or no contest plea and give up their right to a trial.
If the state and the defendant are unable to reach a plea agreement, and the defendant does not want to plead open to the court, the judge sets a trial date and the case proceeds to trial.
Step Six: Trial and (Maybe) Sentencing (But Hopefully Not)
Though the majority of criminal cases end in plea agreements, some cases proceed all the way to trial. As the defendant, you can choose whether the final decision maker in your trial is the judge or a jury of your peers (Rule 3.260).
At trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proving that you committed the crimes alleged beyond a reasonable doubt. Both sides have the opportunity to give their version of events through opening statements, presenting evidence, questioning witnesses, and closing arguments.
Based on the weight of the evidence, the judge or jury then decides whether or not the prosecution proved your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Regardless of whether they return a verdict of not guilty or guilty, the jury’s verdict must be unanimous. Most lawyers and judges agree that predicting a jury’s verdict at any time during a case is practically impossible.
When a defendant is found not guilty, they are released without any fines, probation, or incarceration to worry about.
When a defendant is found guilty, the case moves forward to sentencing. Sentencing is frequently a few weeks after a trial, but can sometimes take place immediately after a verdict is rendered.
It is up to the judge whether someone is taken into custody or allowed to remain out of custody during that period between a verdict and sentencing. Once at sentencing, a judge may consider almost any fact about the case or the defendant.
This frequently includes taking statements from the defendant, the defendant’s family and friends, victims, members of law enforcement, and other witnesses. Once a case is sentenced, that is when the defendant’s appeals process may begin.
Contact a Florida Criminal Defense Attorney Today
The Florida criminal procedure timeline and steps within a case can vary depending on a number of factors, including the seriousness of the charges and whether you reach a plea agreement or decide to go to trial.