North Carolina Criminal Process
For most people, understanding how the criminal justice system works is limited to the ways these workings have been depicted in movies, on television, or on the internet. When a person is arrested for the very first time in his life, he can be astonished to learn that court procedures are actually far more complex than what happens with films or TV shows.
Alleged offenders should understand that their case could proceed in many different directions. You should always know what your rights are at every stage of any criminal matter.
Raleigh Lawyer Helps Guide You Through North Carolina Criminal Process
If you were recently arrested or you believe that you might be the subject of a criminal investigation in North Carolina, you should not delay in seeking legal representation. Coolidge Law Firm aggressively defends people against all types of criminal charges and works to achieve the most favorable outcome with the fewest possible penalties.
Our Wake County criminal attorneys represent clients in the greater Raleigh area, including Garner, Morrisville, Holly Springs, Rolesville, Apex, Wake Forest, Wendell, Knightdale, Fuquay-Varina, Cary, and Zebulon. We can review your case and answer all of your questions during a free, confidential consultation as soon as you call.
North Carolina Criminal Process Overview
- How do these cases usually begin?
- What happens when an alleged offender is arrested?
- When is the first court appearance?
- How do prosecutors and defense lawyers negotiate plea agreements?
- What does a grand jury do?
- How many arraignments do alleged offenders have?
- What happens during a criminal trial?
- Can an attorney appeal a verdict?
- Where can I find more information about North Carolina courts?
When a crime has been committed in North Carolina, the police will need to investigate and gather evidence to prove that an alleged offender committed the offense. The amount of time that is put into an investigation varies depending on the type of crime.
Law enforcement does not need to investigate cases in which officers personally see alleged offenders break the law, such as traffic offenses like reckless driving. Other complex charges like drug trafficking or possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell or deliver can require several months of investigation.
If a police officer witnesses a crime being committed, then the alleged offender can be placed under arrest at the scene of the crime (or wherever the officer can next apprehend the alleged offender). If an officer is basing an arrest on an investigation or reported crime, then there must be probable cause—reasonable grounds to believe an alleged offender committed a crime.
When police officers place alleged offenders under arrest, they do not need warrants to search the suspects or their vehicles (when alleged offenders are apprehended while driving). People who are placed under arrest still maintain important constitutional rights despite the arrest.
If you are arrested, remember that the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees your right to remain silent. Additionally, the Sixth Amendment gives you the right to legal counsel.
After formal charges have been filed, an alleged offender is required to make his first appearance in court. A judge informs the alleged offender of the criminal charges against him and his rights including the right to a lawyer.
The judge will also determine whether an alleged offender can be released on his own recognizance or need to post a bond that is also set by the judge. An attorney can help present the alleged offender in a positive light and encourage the court to many any bond as low as possible.
The alleged offender’s attorney and the prosecutor can begin negotiating a plea agreement as soon as the first appearance and can continue negotiating all the way until the conclusion of a case. A defense lawyer will typically argue to have charges reduced or dismissed while the prosecutor will be seeking some kind of guilty plea.
In every case, the prosecution has the burden to show that enough evidence exists to establish probable cause that the defendant committed the alleged offense. This hurdle must be cleared before the prosecution can proceed to trial.
In North Carolina, the prosecution can clear this hurdle through a probable cause hearing or a Grand Jury. For Felony cases, Wake County almost never holds a probable cause hearing. The District Attorney’s office prefers to establish probable cause before a Grand Jury.
By doing so, the prosecution is able to present their case in secret without any defense attorneys being present. If you are charged with a felony in Wake County, your case will begin in District Court, room 301 of the Wake County Justice System. If a plea agreement or deferral is not reached then your case will be continued such that the prosecution can schedule the case on the next grand jury.
The grand jury is a group of at least a dozen up to 18 randomly selected citizens that review a case to determine whether probable cause exists in a specific case.
If the grand jury finds probable cause, then the defendant will be sent a true bill of indictment and the case will move to Superior Court, room 701 of the Wake County Justice System.
Alleged offenders facing misdemeanor charges are usually arraigned only immediately prior to entering a plea or the beginning of a trial. In felony cases, offenders will usually face two arraignments, once within 48 hours of being arrest and again at plea or beginning of trial.
An arraignment is the formal reading of the criminal complaint, and the judge directs the alleged felony offender to enter a plea. If a guilty or nolo contendere plea is entered, the judge will determine a sentence. If the alleged offender enters a plea of not guilty, then the case moves to trial.
An alleged offender who wishes to plead not guilty can also enter a waiver of arraignment by filing a written plea.
Most criminal cases do not reach trial because this is a very costly and time-consuming aspect of the criminal process. An alleged offender’s attorney may have to take a case to trial if a prosecutor is unwilling to make satisfactory concessions when negotiating a plea agreement.
Alleged offenders are entitled to a jury trial, but they reserve the right to a bench trial in which a single judge hears and decides a case. You should make sure to consult with an experienced lawyer before requesting such a trial.
At a criminal trial, the alleged offender’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Trials generally involve the following steps:
- Voir Dire (Jury Selection);
- Opening Statements;
- Prosecutor Calls Witnesses and Presents Evidence;
- Cross-Examination by Defense Attorney;
- Defense Lawyer Calls Witnesses and Presents Evidence;
- Cross-Examination by Prosecutor;
- Prosecutor Calls Rebuttal Witnesses;
- Closing Arguments;
- Judge Reads Instructions to Jury;
- Jury Deliberates; and
- Jury Reads Decision.
If the 12 jurors arrive at a unanimous verdict that the alleged offender is not guilty, then he is immediately released from custody. If the dozen jurors cannot arrive at a unanimous verdict, the judge will typically declare a mistrial because of the “hung jury” and the case may or may not be re-tried.
When all 12 jurors reach a unanimous verdict of guilty, then the case moves forward with sentencing. Under North Carolina’s structured sentencing system, a judge will review the possible sentence ranges as determined by the alleged offender’s place on the misdemeanor or felony table and decide the appropriate sentence.
Alleged offenders who believe that an error occurred during the criminal process, particularly the trial, have the right their verdict.. In criminal cases, a Notice of Appeal needs to be served within 14 days of the sentencing.
Alleged offenders convicted in District Court criminal misdemeanor cases may appeal to the Superior Court. The Court of Appeals of North Carolina handles criminal cases appealed from the Superior and District Courts.
There are 15 judges on the Court of Appeals who hear cases in panels of three. If one judge on the panel dissents from the decision of the majority, the alleged offender has the right to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court—which only accepts cases at its’ discretion.
If a person is not convicted of a violent crime, but rather a nonviolent misdemeanor or nonviolent felony, he may still be able to expunge his criminal record of the charge. Not all offenses are eligible to be expunged, and you should make sure to work with a knowledgeable attorney for help with filing a petition to expunge your criminal record.
Wake County Clerk of Court | Criminal Division— This division is responsible for scheduling and retaining records for all criminal case matters in the county. You can learn more about the disposition court, traffic citation payments, court dates, and criminal record checks on this website. Contact information is also listed for the Criminal Public Information Department, Criminal Disposition Department, and Superior Court Department.
300 South Salisbury Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
Criminal Appeals Process — This section of the North Carolina Department of Justice website provides answers to some frequently asked questions about the how appeals work in criminal cases. You can learn more about your rights to appeal, how long it takes for appeals to be settled, and how you can win an appeal.
Attorney General’s Office
9001 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-9001
Understanding the Criminal Court Process — This section of the North Carolina Court System website provides an overview of the criminal process and how cases are handled. You can also find answers to frequently asked questions on this website as well as forms and criminal calendars.
Speak to a Criminal Defense Attorney in Wake County
Do you think that you could possibly be the target of a criminal investigation? Were you already arrested for allegedly committing a crime? You should immediately seek legal counsel.
Coolidge Law Firm fights to protect the rights of clients in and around Raleigh, including students at such schools in the area as North Carolina State University, Shaw University, Wake Technical Community College (Wake Tech), Duke University, William Peace University, Meredith College, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Our Wake County criminal defense attorneys will provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (919) 239-8448 or fill out the form below today to schedule a free initial consultation.