The Criminal Case Process

You can be charged with a crime either at the time of the violation or on a later date. If you were charged on the date and at the time the crime is committed, you will either be arrested or issued a citation.

If you are issued a citation, it will have the court date and the time and place that you need to appear clearly stated on the citation.

If you are arrested, you will be taken in front of a magistrate and required to post a bond.  

There are four types of bonds allowed in North Carolina cases;  

  1. A written promise to appear.  
    If you are issued a written promise to appear, you will merely need to sign your name and agreed to return to court at your assigned time date and place.  
  2. An unsecured bond. If you are issued an unsecured bond, you will not be required to pay any money, but you will be required to agree to pay a sum of money if you fail to appear in court.  
  3. A custody release.
    If you’re issued at custody release, you will need a person to sign for your release. That person will promise to make sure you attend court at your assigned time date and place. There may be certain restrictions on the type of person who is allowed to sign for your release, but typically they are required to be a sober and responsible adult who is willing to take responsibility for you after your release.
  4. A secured bond.
    If you are issued a secured bond, you will need to post money. You can either post the full amount in cash (which will be returned to you as long as you appear at each and every required session of court), or you can have a bondsman post your bond. Bondsman in North Carolina typically charge 15% of the bond amount as a premium, and that amount will not be refunded to you. Bondsman sometimes require a security deposit as well, which will be returned to you upon your appearance at each and every session of court. You can also post a property bond. By posting a property bond you agree that the property can be forfeited and sold and the proceeds applied to the bond forfeited if you fail to appear in court. To execute a property bond, you must go to the clerk of court and get proof of the value of the property (less any money owed on the property), and the amount left must exceed the amount of the bond.

A magistrate or judge can set additional terms of release. Additional conditions might include:

  • No contact with the state’s witness
  • A curfew
  • Various monitoring devices
  • Other conditions that the judge or magistrate feels are appropriate in your case.

When a warrant is issued for service on a date other than the date of the crime, you will need to appear in front of the magistrate who will set a bond and order you to appear on a date and time to answer for the charges. When a warrant is issued, the police can arrest you at any place they find you, or you can turn yourself in. I often help people turn themselves in and be served with warrants, thus minimizing the disruption and embarrassment an arrest can cause.

Domestic violence cases have their own rules, and generally you will be held for 24 hours if arrested on a domestic violence charge, though the state is required to bring you to the next session of District Court to have a your bond set by a District Court judge. Because of the “24 hour hold rule”, it is even more important to arrange a bond in domestic violence cases.  

When you are charged with a felony, you're required by North Carolina law to have a first appearance within 48 hours of your arrest. That short time puts a lot of pressure on the clerk’s office, the magistrates office, and the District Attorney's office to be prepared for your case in that period of time.  

At the first appearance, only one question will be asked of you: what do you intend to do about an attorney? You can ask that the Court appoint you a lawyer, you can agree to represent yourself, or you can signify your intent to hire a lawyer. The judge will ask you to sign a paper determining which option you choose. If you apply for a court-appointed lawyer, the judge will ask you for financial information, which the court will review before granting your request for a lawyer.  

The process for disposing of a felony charge almost always begins in District Court, felonies are almost always disposed in Superior Court. While the case is in District Court, the District Attorney should get a screening report from the agency who charged you with the crime detailing their evidence. Until the District Attorney receives a screening report, it’s difficult to discuss the case with him because he does not have the information he needs. For that reason, these cases often move very slowly through the system. Remember, time is on your side. Anger dissipates, evidence gets lost, most things that happen with time benefit the defendant in a criminal case.

Felony Charges

Unlike a misdemeanor charge, a felony charge requires the district attorney to provide your attorney with all potentially exculpatory materials prior to a plea or trial in your case. Lawyers call this process "The Discovery Process", and I’ll file motions that require the district attorney to provide me with all the information he has that might help us in your case. By filing those motions, I’ll protect you from the possibility that the district attorney has hidden evidence or failed to reveal it, which could yield dramatic benefits. I’ll also do an investigation of most of the evidence and charges against you. You see, I’m not a trusting sort, and I need to be sure that we have all the information that we need to do the best job for you.  

In almost all felony charges, at some point in the process the district attorney will offer you a plea agreement. That plea agreement will set out the terms of your sentence, and will set out what crimes to which you agree to plead guilty. You are never required to take a plea agreement, but it is often very dangerous to try a felony case because the sentence you could receive if you were convicted could be very harsh. Of course, we’ll discuss your case in detail, and will work together to find the best option for you.  

If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you have no right to discovery, although I contend you have the right to all exculpatory evidence. I have pioneered the filing of a Brady motion in all district court cases. Under Brady v. Maryland, the state is required to provide the defendant with all exculpatory evidence prior to trial. I pride myself in putting pressure on the district attorney’s office to make them provide me with all the evidence that might be useful in trial or in plea negotiations.  

Civilian Cases  

Some cases are brought to District Court not by sworn police officers but by civilians. Those cases are handled differently, and are often heard in a separate court room, usually called People’s Court. I handle those cases much differently than cases taken out by police officers, and am often successful in getting those cases into a mediate and dismiss posture. Of course each case has its own situation and I handle each case individually in a way that’s best for the client.  

Witnesses & Witnessing

Sometimes people will call me because they are a witness in a criminal case. If I represent the defendant, I’ll be happy to talk to you about the case, as long as you remember that I don’t represent you - I represent my client. The counties in which I practice don’t allow private prosecution, and you would be poorly served by hiring a lawyer to prosecute your case in most cases. If you were a witness, I’d always advise that you contact the witness coordinator in the District Attorney’s Office a few days prior to court and ask them if they’ve assigned the case to a specific district attorney. Be prepared to spend a good portion of the day, and to spend several days in court prosecuting the case.  

I have written in another section of the website, Witness Preparation & Guidelines on how I expect you to behave in court either as a witness or as a defendant. If I represent you, we’ll go over what I expect in what you can expect prior to any hearing. I come to court very well prepared, and so will you. If you are charged with a crime or if you’re a witness subpoenaed to court, you must appear in court at the time date and place specified or you risk being arrested. Sometimes I can have you excused from Court for various reasons, but just remember that that’s not automatic.  

In Court  

When you come the court:

  • You must wear your "Sunday best", as in the best clothes you have or can borrow. 
  • You must bring a book to read.
  • You must turn off your cell phone or other electronic device, or at the minimum set it on vibrate.
  • You must be quiet and respectful. The judge is watching, and he wants to know that you take this matter seriously. Don’t laugh, joke, have fun or cut up. People’s lives are at stake here. I tell my clients to pretend they’re in church and that the judge decides whether they’re going to heaven or hell, and so the best thing to do is not to attract attention.

We'll go over in detail how I expect you to behave in a trial. For example:

  • I’ll give you a pad to write me notes.  If someone says something you don't agree with, don’t just write, "That’s a lie".  By the time I see your note, I won't know what part of the testimony you're saying is a lie.  Instead, write the truth and slide it over to me, and I’ll use it to your best advantage.
  • Never say anything that anyone but me can hear. 
  • Don’t laugh, groan, sigh, or make any other noise while you’re sitting beside me at the table.
  • If you testify, never engage in argument.
  • If you testify, don’t guess.  Only answer the questions where you know the answer.
  • Stay in the courtroom unless you’re excused, even if the court takes a break.  Stay in the courtroom until you and I have agreed where you’ll be so I can find you.
  • Don’t tell them I represent you and they’re to wait for me.  If you’re called in in front of the court and I’m not there just remind them that I represent you. They’ll find me.

Once your case is heard, the court will generally pronounce a verdict at that moment, although some judges will take a case under advisement and pronounce the verdict later.  

Sentencing will usually be held as soon as the verdict is entered, but on some occasions sentencing can be delayed for various reasons. We'll discuss all the possibilities in your case before we get to court so you won’t be surprised.  

To summarize, criminal charges are complex, and to get the best result you need the best lawyer. Don’t risk your freedom, your record and your lifestyle!  Call me today at 919-688-1941 or contact me from here on my web site for your free consultation.