Many of the folks who come in for consultations are scared and completely unfamiliar with the criminal process in Minnesota. They are worried about how quickly things will occur, whether they will go to jail (and if so how soon), how much talking they will have to do in court, and whether they need an attorney to defend their rights. Understanding the procedure in a criminal defense case can help ease worries and also help your attorney defend your rights under Minnesota Law. The procedure differs somewhat depending on the offense and how serious it is. It is important to understand that the language describing various hearings can differ considerably from county to county in MN.
The First Hearing
Misdemeanor Case in MN: Arraignment
- What to Expect at an Arraignment:
- First, the judge wants to make sure that the defendant, the person charged with a crime, understands what his or her rights are. Typically, when you check into court, you will fill out a rights form. The rights form lays out the constitutional rights that you have when you are charged with a misdemeanor.
- Second, an entry of a plea. The defendant can either enter a GUILTY or a NOT GUILTY plea. If you enter a guilty plea, typically the judge will want to know what you did that makes you guilty of the offense. Typically, if you plead guilty, the judge will sentence you the same day. If you plead not guilty, the judge will generally set conditions of release. Conditions of release can include things like abstention from drugs or alcohol, remaining law abiding, having no contact with the alleged victim, and will always include a requirement that you come back to court. The case will be set for a PRETRIAL OR SETTLEMENT CONFERENCE. This is a hearing designed to reach some sort of plea agreement. If you aren’t able to resolve the case at a pretrial or settlement conference, the case is set for a TRIAL.
Felony or Gross Misdemeanor Case in MN: First Appearance
- What to Expect at a First Appearance:
- The judge will make sure that you understand your constitutional rights. You will fill out a rights form that is similar to misdemeanor cases, but slightly different.
- The court will also address conditions of release, which may or may not include:
- financial obligations such as bail/bond
- abstaining from drugs or alcohol
- random testing
- a no contact order
- remaining law abiding
- travel restrictions
- required to return to court.
- Frequently, the first appearance is combined with a RULE 8 HEARING, which is procedural more than anything.
- At a Rule 8 hearing, the prosecutor will turn over a copy of their discovery, or physical file. Typically this will include the complaint, police reports, witness statement transcripts, etc. Digital evidence such as videos, audio recordings, and photographs are generally turned over at a later date. If the prosecutor isn’t prepared to proceed to Rule 8 on the date of the first appearance, this process is usually handled administratively by mail.
- The hearing after a Rule 8 hearing is generally referred to as an OMNIBUS HEARING. An Omnibus Hearing is a chance for your attorney to address pretrial legal issues such as whether there is probable cause to support the charges or whether your constitutional rights have been violated. Constitutional violations can include issues such as the failure to read the Miranda warning before custodial interrogation; the lack of reasonable articulable suspicion to support a traffic stop; or the search of a location, such as a home or a vehicle, without a warrant or some exception to the warrant requirement. If such an issue exists in your case, your attorney will file a Motion to Dismiss or Motion to Suppress. This will typically be addressed at a MOTION HEARING OR CONTESTED OMNIBUS HEARING. Such a hearing might include testimony from witnesses or legal arguments from the attorneys. The court will generally take any issues under advisement and issue a written ruling at a later date.
Pretrial | Settlement Conference
- The next hearing is generally referred to as a PRETRIAL or a SETTLEMENT CONFERENCE. The pretrial or settlement conference in a felony or a gross misdemeanor context is the same as in the misdemeanor context. It is essentially a hearing to come to some sort of agreement to resolve the case via a plea agreement. If the matter cannot be resolved, it is set for a TRIAL.
- There are two types of trials: a JURY TRIAL and a COURT TRIAL.
- In a jury trial, the jury makes the decision about whether the government can prove you guilty BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. The jury is required to give you the PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE and the presumption remains until all the jurors agree that you are guilty. In a misdemeanor or a gross misdemeanor case there are six jurors and in a felony case there are twelve jurors. The defendant can also waive his right to a jury and have a court trial. In a court trial, the judge listens to the evidence and decides if the government has met its burden of proof.
- The big difference between a court trial and a jury trial is that in a court trial, there is only one person listening to the evidence as opposed to six or twelve.
- The last stage of a criminal case is generally SENTENCING. Sentencing can be a relatively minor process in a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor or a more complicated process in a felony. In most misdemeanors or even some gross misdemeanors, sentencing will generally take place right after a guilty plea or sometimes even a jury verdict. In a felony, the court will generally order a Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI). The PSI is prepared by probation and provided to the Court and the attorneys after a meeting with the defendant. The PSI will summarize the defendant’s criminal history, work history, educational history as well as any challenges faced by the defendant such as mental health issues or chemical dependency issues. The PSI will also make recommendations to the Court about what sentence the Court should impose. These recommendations are not mandatory and the Court ultimately has the discretion to sentence as it sees fit within certain limits. Generally speaking, you will not face any jail time until you have been sentenced unless you have violated your conditions of release or if you cannot afford bail/bond. At times, sentencing hearings can involve significant arguments about the length of a prison sentence or whether the defendant should be placed on probation in lieu of being sentenced to prison time.
The length of the process is hard to predict. Many misdemeanors are resolved at the first appearance and only require one hearing. Most felonies take months to upwards of a year or perhaps longer. In either case, it is important to have a voice in the courtroom.
An Attorney Can Be Your Voice and Help You Defend Your Rights