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The Process & Elements of Criminal Cases

by | Nov 28, 2017 | Criminal Law

Criminal law involves clients who are being prosecuted by the state or federal government after being arrested and charged with either a misdemeanor or felony offense. An arrest, and subsequent criminal charge, comes with many foreseeable consequences including incarceration, a criminal record and/or serious fines. However, aside from the foreseeable, defendants are faced with many personal and sometimes overlooked strains including but not limited to the loss of employment, a strain on familial ties, house arrest, community service, and public scorn or humiliation.

With zealous representation from the Shapiro Zwanetz & Associates (SZA) TEAM the above stresses will be greatly reduced. The Shapiro Zwanetz & Associates (SZA) team has years of experience trying and handling criminal cases of all varieties. More importantly, the attorneys at Shapiro Zwanetz & Associates (SZA) remain committed to providing the highest level of representation and professional standards that money can buy.

Criminal Process Breakdown

The criminal defense process is stressful, confusing, and time consuming. The anxiety one feels with a criminal charge pending is extremely difficult to quell. However, a basic understanding of the layout of the criminal trial process can surely help to ease one’s mind, and allow them to focus on what is most important – their Defense. Below is an analysis of the common elements of a criminal case. For answers to the specific aspects of your case please contact Shapiro Zwanetz & Associates (SZA) directly for a free and immediate consultation.

District Courts: The District Court process of criminal cases can be simplified into Stop, Search, Arrest, Booking, Arraignment, Pre-Trial, Trial, and Appeal. Jury trials cannot be conducted at the District Court level.

Circuit Courts: The Circuit Courts process for criminal cases is similar, except felony cases must first be indicted by grand jury or preliminary hearing in the District Court. Criminal cases in Circuit are either indicted via grand jury or preliminary hearing, set for jury trials, or appeals of District Court matters. Maryland criminal charges that are jail-able for one (1) year or more can be transferred to the Circuit Court on request for a jury trial.

Elements of Criminal Cases

Stop: Police can legally stop any individual for questioning under probable cause laws. Though a stop is not an arrest, an officer may pose questions, which an individual can and probably should refuse. Additionally, a person can be frisked during a stop, if the officer has “specific articulable suspicion” that an individual is armed with a weapon. During a pat down, which is typically called a Terry frisk, officers are not allowed to reach into pockets, unless they are able to specifically and immediately identify an object, by plain feel, to be a weapon or some other illegal object/substance.

Search: Search warrants are court orders allowing police to search for specific items, in a specific place only. There must be probable cause present to issue a search warrant. Probable cause means specific items sought in a search are related to criminal activity and that the certain items will be found in the place searched specifically. In some instances, searches may be performed legally without a search warrant – those instances include:

Consent searches: consent searches take place when an individual allows themselves, their vehicle, or their residence to be searched with their consent. Consent is never required to be given by individuals to law enforcement for searches and on must occasions should not be given.

Automobile searches, involve arrest of an individual inside a vehicle and the ensuing search inside the vehicle. To perform search of the entire vehicle, including locked glove compartments or trunk, probable cause is needed.

Search incident to arrest: a search incident is when law enforcement officers search a person’s body and clothing for hazardous or illegal items and inventory when making valid arrests. The bottom line is that anyone who is arrested will be fully searched and if they are arrested inside their vehicle, that vehicle will be fully searched as well.

Plain view: The plain view doctrine allows police that see an illegal item in a place where it could easily be moved, they can seize it. For example, if a police officer pulls a person over for speeding and sees a marijuana leaf on the floor of the car, they can seize. However, if an officer is walking down the street and sees a marijuana leaf in the window of someone’s home, they must get a search warrant. The car is mobile but the house, with the marijuana in it, is going nowhere. The police are free to stand outside the home they want to search while the application for a search warrant is being processed.

Exigent circumstances: The exigency doctrine stand for the proposition that searches that may be done if “exigent circumstances” present themselves, which demand immediate action, such as avoiding the destruction of evidence. This relates back to the plain view example with the car above. As the car could easily leave with the evidence there is no search warrant requirement for the immediate seizure of contraband in plain view in a motor vehicle.

Arrest: For law enforcement to arrest an individual, probable cause must exist. In essence, police officers must have a reason to believe that a crime was probably, or is probably in the process of, being committed and the person being arrested is probably the one that committed the crime. In most cases, an arrest warrant is not necessary, unless in the event that an arrest is going to occur within a person’s home.

Following arrest, the Constitution offers a number of rights to protect the arrested individual. Two integral rights include the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney. It is strongly recommended that both rights are immediately asserted. An individual does not have to and should not say anything to police or detectives, until an attorney is present. An opportunity to contact an attorney must be provided to the arrested individual.

Miranda Laws: Following a landmark 1966 Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 346 (1966), the Miranda rights of persons being placed under arrest were established. The Supreme Court, led by then Chief Justice Earl Warren, proffered that individuals placed in police custody and faced with interrogation questions receive certain Constitutional rights, which must be clearly outlined by arresting law enforcement officers, including:

  • Right to remain silent
  • Right to an attorney during questioning
  • Right to a court appointed attorney if an individual cannot afford one

Contrary to some misnomers, Miranda rights do not have to be explained until/unless an individual is actually taken under police custody AND questioned.

Booking: Following an arrest, law enforcement will transport an individual to a station for the booking process. During the booking process, fingerprinting, questioning, searches, and photographs will be requested of the arrested individual. Additionally, all property on an individual will be confiscated, recorded, and stored.

Charges: When a clerk of the court files a complaint, a person is formally charged with given offenses. In some instances, even a law enforcement officer or private citizen can file complaints. Routinely, the courts will accept officer complaints made under oath. For private citizens making a complaint, charges will be filed with the Court Commissioner and upon review either an arrest warrant or a show cause (court date) will be issued against the accused individual.

Once the charges have been filed, arraignment, bail/bond review, and trial follows:

Arraignment: Following the first appearance following a complaint, an arraignment occurs. Generally, the arraignment occurs twenty-four hours after an arrest. During an arraignment, pleas to a given charge are entered by defendants, which may include:

  • “Mute” plea: A person may “stand mute” instead of making a plea. The court will then enter a plea of not guilty.
  • No contest plea: A “no contest” or “nolo contendere” may be entered with the permission of the court. This is essentially the same as a guilty plea, with the exception that, unlike guilty plea, a “nolo contendere” plea usually cannot later be used against the person in a civil lawsuit. A sentence is imposed.
  • Guilty plea: This is a full admission to the facts of the crime and the fact that the person pleading is the one who committed that crime. Following a guilty plea, the judges imposes sentence.
  • Not guilty plea: This states that the person did not commit the crime as accused. After a not guilty plea, a pre-trial date will be set.

At the time of the arraignment, the courts will also set the amount of bail, refuse bail to the defendant, or release an individual on their own recognizance.

Bail: In the course of criminal trials, bail is the amount of money, property, or other collateral utilized to insure the person accused will arrive at later at criminal court proceedings. Bail may be paid via cash or the commitment of property, if allowed by the courts. Bail amounts will be based on a review of the alleged perpetrators threat level (i.e., the nature of the alleged crime), ties to the community, and their prior record.

Speedy Trial: Under laws provided for by the United States Constitution and the Sixth Amendment, every individual has a right to a speedy trial. Generally, these rights require that a trial be held within a reasonable period of time following being charged with a crime. In many instances, individuals may waive this right, in order to more adequately prepare for a case defense.

Pre-Trial Conference and Hearing (only in a Circuit Court matter): The pre-trial conference and hearing are generally the first time, following the arraignment, which an individual must appear in court again. During this court date, a criminal defense attorney and prosecutors will discuss whether or not a case can possibly be disposed without trial, through an agreement. The accused individual must attend these proceedings, although no testimony or formal proceedings actually take place. During the pre-trial conference, prosecutors may offer a plea bargain, or attempt to avoid trial by offering pleas for lesser crimes in exchange for responsibility in some aspect of a given charge or crime. During the conference, both entities will discuss details of a trial, including estimations on length and other items.

Trial: Following a criminal arrest, individuals have a right to trial by jury. The jury, which consists of six or twelve members, must unanimously deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Individual may, however, waive their right to trial by jury through pleading guilty or electing to undergo a bench trial, which is a trial in front of a judge, exclusively. In capital cases, a jury must try a defendant, regardless.

Appeals: Persons found guilty by a judge or jury are allowed to appeal the verdict. Depending on the crimes, the process is different, however, there are always time limitations during which an appeal must be filed. Generally, defendants have thirty (30) days following a verdict to appeal the decision, and the appeal must be under some grounds. Grounds for appealing a case, aside from an unfavorable verdict, can be made under the statement of legal error. Legal errors may include:

  • Errors in the judge’s instructions to the jury
  • Insufficient evidence supporting a guilty verdict
  • Inadmissible evidence being allowed into the courtroom, including evidence obtained as a violation of Constitutional rights
  • Juror misconduct
  • Appearance of new evidence surrounding the case
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