Going to court for a criminal case can be an intimidating and stressful experience. Understanding what to expect at each stage of the process can help you feel more prepared.
This guide covers the most common court settings and proceedings in Texas criminal cases to help you understand what will happen and how to get through the process.
Arrest and Booking
The criminal case process starts with an arrest by law enforcement. If the police believe you committed a crime, they can arrest you on the spot or after getting an arrest warrant signed by a judge.
During booking, you will be fingerprinted, photographed, and asked for basic information. The police may search you and confiscate any personal items. You have the right to make a phone call to contact a lawyer or arrange for bail.
Police must bring you before a judge or magistrate for an initial hearing within 48 hours of arrest. At this hearing, you will be formally notified of the charges against you and advised of your rights. The judge may also make a decision on whether you can be released on bail while awaiting further proceedings.
At your initial appearance, the judge will:
- Inform you of the charges against you
- Advise you of your rights
- Set or review bail/bond conditions
- Determine if you need a court-appointed attorney
- Set dates for future hearings
This is generally a brief hearing, but it marks your first time before the judge. Be sure to pay attention and treat the proceedings formally and respectfully.
In felony cases in Texas, a preliminary hearing may happen soon after arraignment. This is a short court proceeding where the judge looks at the prosecution’s evidence and decides whether there is probable cause to uphold the charges against you and proceed with the case.
At a preliminary hearing:
- The prosecutor will outline the charges and present evidence.
- Your defense lawyer can cross-examine witnesses and argue against the charges.
- The judge then decides if the case should go to trial or be dismissed due to lack of evidence.
If the judge finds probable cause, your case moves ahead to pretrial proceedings and trial. If not, the charges may be reduced or dropped completely.
The pretrial phase covers the period between your arraignment and the start of the trial when both sides prepare for trial. Some key pretrial events include:
- Motions and Hearings – Your lawyer and the prosecutor may file motions asking the judge to make certain rulings, like throwing out evidence illegally obtained by police. The judge holds hearings to listen to arguments and make decisions on the motions.
- Plea Bargaining – The prosecution and defense negotiate a potential plea agreement to settle the case without trial. This may involve pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a lighter sentence.
- Discovery – Both sides exchange data and evidence related to the case through the discovery process. As the defendant, you are entitled to view the prosecution’s evidence against you.
- Status Conferences – Informal meetings between the lawyers and judge to discuss preparation for trial and outstanding pretrial issues.
- Change of Plea – You can change your plea from not guilty to guilty before trial starts, either through a plea agreement or an “open plea” with no guarantees of sentencing.
Thorough pretrial preparation and negotiations by your criminal justice attorney can significantly impact the outcome of your case. An experienced lawyer will know how to leverage this stage to build the strongest defense.
If no plea agreement is reached, the case will go to a criminal trial before a judge or jury. The trial determines your guilt or innocence on the charges. Key parts of a criminal trial may include:
- Jury selection – Attorneys question and select jurors if you have a jury trial.
- Opening statements – Lawyers present an overview of the case to the jury.
- Prosecution evidence – Prosecutors call witnesses and present evidence trying to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Cross-examination – Your lawyer questions the prosecution’s witnesses, trying to raise doubts about their testimony.
- Defense evidence – Your attorney presents witnesses and evidence to refute the charges and support your innocence.
- Closing arguments – Attorneys summarize the case and argue why the evidence does or does not support a guilty verdict.
- Verdict – The judge or jury reaches a verdict after deliberation: guilty or not guilty on each charge.
- Sentencing – If found guilty, the judge may sentence you immediately or schedule a separate sentencing hearing.
The stakes are high at trial, so having an experienced criminal defense lawyer is critical. Skilled Texas criminal defense attorneys know how to present persuasive arguments and handle every step of the process to the maximum advantage of the defense.
The criminal justice process does not necessarily end when a verdict is reached. Common post-trial events include:
- Sentencing – If you are found or plead guilty, the judge determines your penalty at a sentencing hearing. Your lawyer will argue for leniency.
- Appeal – You can file an appeal to contest your conviction or sentence and request a higher court review the trial court’s rulings.
- Probation – For some convictions, the judge may suspend jail time and impose probation with conditions like community service.
- Parole – After some period of incarceration, you may be eligible for supervised release on parole.
Knowing how to navigate the post-conviction legal options can be key to reducing your sentence or regaining your freedom. An experienced criminal appeals lawyer can advise you on the best next steps.
What to Expect in the Courtroom
If you have upcoming court hearings, knowing basic courtroom protocol and etiquette will help you feel more prepared and confident. Here are some tips:
- Dress appropriately – Wear clean, neat clothing and avoid distracting styles. Be as formal and conservative as possible.
- Arrive early – Give yourself plenty of time to get through security and find the right courtroom. Being late will make a bad impression.
- Silence phones and devices – Phones must be turned off in the courtroom.
- Stand when the judge enters – Stand until told to be seated. Always stand when addressing the judge.
- Be respectful – Address the judge as “your honor.” Do not interrupt witnesses or attorneys.
- Avoid outbursts – Remain calm, even if you disagree with something said in court. Let your lawyer handle objections.
- Listen carefully – Pay close attention to all testimony and discussions, as they affect your case.
- Consult your lawyer – If you have questions or concerns, write them down to quietly discuss them with your lawyer later.
Staying calm and collected demonstrates maturity. Answer questions from your lawyer or the judge honestly. Trust your attorney to handle the arguments and presentation of your defense.
Get Legal Help with Your Criminal Defense Lawyer
Having an experienced criminal defense lawyer is crucial for navigating each phase of the process and defending your rights in court.
Trust the team at Whalen Law Office to provide aggressive and strategic representation at every stage of your criminal case in Texas. With years of combined experience defending clients in state and federal courts, they have the skills to protect your rights and freedom. Schedule a consultation today.