New Jersey Criminal Justice Process
Essex & Hudson County Criminal Defense Attorneys
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There are three stages to a criminal case: The pre-indictment or complaint stage, post-indictment and trial.
The pre-indictment phase of criminal case processing encompasses all actions taken in relation to the case from the filing of the initial charges through presentation of the case to a grand jury.
The criminal process normally begins with the filing of a complaint in Municipal Court. The process can also begin with an arrest without a warrant or by the return of an indictment. The complaint is a written statement accusing a specific person of committing an offense and citing the essential facts constituting the offense. Complaints are normally made by police officers, but all citizens have the right to lodge complaints. The complaint can either be a summons or a warrant.
A summons is the process by which a defendant is ordered to appear before the Court on a certain date.
b. Arrest Pursuant to a Warrant
An arrest warrant is a document that orders the police to arrest a defendant and bring him before the court issuing the warrant. If bail is posted the defendant is set free. If bail is not posted, the defendant is detained pending a first appearance, which is normally held in Municipal Court. However, in some counties first appearances are centralized before the presiding judge of the Municipal Courts or a Superior Court judge.
c. Arrest without a Warrant
In many instances, the criminal process actually begins with an arrest by a police officer where no formal papers, i.e. complaint, have been filed with the court. Where this occurs, the accused is arrested, brought to police headquarters where a complaint is prepared. The matter is then brought before a judicial officer, who determines whether there is probable cause that an offense has been committed by the accused and determines whether a summons or warrant will be issued.
Bail is the money or property deposited with the court to secure the release of a person held in custody awaiting the resolution of charges against him or her. View our Bail page for more information.
3. First Appearance
The first appearance is, generally, the first time a defendant appears before a judge. If the defendant is in custody, the first appearance is to be conducted within 72 hours, excluding holidays. If the defendant is released on bail, the first appearance is to occur without unnecessary delay. At the first appearance the judge informs the defendant of the charges and furnishes a copy of the charges and of the right not to make a statement as to the charge. The defendant also is informed that any statement he or she makes may be used against him or her; of the right to counsel or, if indigent, the right to have counsel furnished without cost.
If the defendant is charged with an indictable offense, the judge also informs the defendant of the existence of the PTI program and how to apply for admission to the program; the right to indictment by grand jury; the right to a trial by jury; of the right to have a hearing as to probable cause.
4. Pre-indictment Event
Most counties now have a some type of pre-indictment event that brings the judge, attorneys and Criminal Division staff together before indictment. Some counties hold a formal in-court event, such as Central Judicial Processing (CJP) or Pre-indictment Program (PIP). At this event, the prosecutor screens the case to determine whether to remand the case to Municipal Court, to administratively dismiss the case or to proceed to indictment. For those cases that will proceed to indictment, the pre-indictment event is also used as a vehicle for early diversion into the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI) or to plea to an accusation; to resolve issues regarding defense representation, e.g., indigency and to screen for eligible Drug Court candidates). Other counties hold a less formal event that is normally scheduled after the prosecutor has screened the case.
5. Grand Jury
If a complaint is not resolved pre-indictment, it is presented to a grand jury for action. The right to have charges presented to a grand jury is guaranteed by the New Jersey Constitution. The function of the grand jury is to investigate criminal complaints, with the goal of either bringing charges against those responsible for criminal conduct, or refusing to bring charges where prosecution is unwarranted.
A grand jury consists of no more than 23 members, randomly selected from the general public. The deliberations of the grand jury are secret. An assistant prosecutor presents the State’s case to the grand jury. Neither the defendant, nor his or her attorney attend grand jury proceedings unless the defendant asks to testify before the grand jury. If 12 or more members of the grand jury find that charges are warranted, the panel renders an indictment, which is called a “True Bill.” If the grand jury finds charges are unwarranted, it returns a “No Bill.”
An indictment is a written statement of the essential facts constituting the crime charged. The indictment must also state the official statutory citation for the crime charged. Once an indictment has been returned, it is filed with the court.
2. Locations of Courthouses
a. Essex County
The Essex County court systems has numerous courthouses and other buildings. All Essex County criminal court judges sit in the Essex County Veterans Courthouse, 50 West Market Street in Newark.
b. Hudson County
Hudson County has two courthouses. All Hudson County criminal court judges sit in the Hudson County Administration Building, 595 Newark Avenue in Jersey City.
3. Pre-arraignment Conference
The first post-indictment event is a pre-arraignment conference, which is conducted by the Criminal Division of the Superior Court. This conference occurs within 21 days after indictment. At this conference, defense representation is confirmed, discovery1 is available, and the uniform defendant intake form is completed. If the defendant has not previously applied for PTI, and asks to do so, an application is taken. The court can also screen for eligible Drug Court candidates. The purpose of this conference is to insure routine matters, which need not take up valuable judicial resources, are resolved prior to the arraignment/status conference. This allows the first court event, the arraignment/status conference, to be used as a tool to dispose of cases or to set firm dates for motions, future conferences and trials. The arraignment/status conference is scheduled to occur a few weeks after the pre-arraignment conference, by which time defense counsel should have reviewed discovery and discussed a negotiated plea with the state.
No pre-arraignment conference is required where the defendant has obtained counsel and the Criminal Division Manager’s Office has established to its satisfaction that (1) an appearance has been filed; (2) discovery has been obtained, and (3) the defendant and counsel have obtained a date, place and time for the arraignment/status conference.
4. Arraignment/Status Conference
In Essex & Hudson counties, the first in-Court event after indictment is the arraignment/status conference. The arraignment/status conference, which occurs within 50 days of the return of the indictment, is held in Superior Court and consists of the judge advising the defendant of the substance of the Discovery is the facts and information that will be relied upon in trial and is provided to the opposing party. A copy of discovery is required to be delivered to the Criminal Division Manager’s Office or available at the Prosecutor’s Office, within 14 days of indictment. Defense counsel is required to obtain discovery no later than 28 days after the return or unsealing of the indictment.
The court will advised the defendant of the charges against him or her, as contained in the indictment, confirming that the defendant has reviewed the indictment and discovery with counsel, and asking him or her to enter a plea to the charges. If the plea is not guilty, counsel is to report to the judge on the status of plea negotiations. At the arraignment/status conference, the dates for hearing motions and a further status conference are set.
A motion is a legal pleading which asks the court for some specific action, e.g., to suppress evidence unlawfully obtained. It is normally a document that sets forth facts and legal arguments to persuade a judge to grant the action requested. The most common type of motion is a motion to suppress evidence. Most motions are filed by defense counsel, but some, such as a motion for depositions, may be filed by the State. At the time of filing, motions are normally accompanied by an affidavit or certification.
6. Pre-trial Conference
At the arraignment/status conference, motion dates and a date for a future status conference are set. All motions are heard prior to the last status conference. The last status conference is the pre-trial conference. The court conducts a conference when there are no motions pending, discovery is complete, all reasonable attempts to dispose of the case prior to trial have been made and it appears that further negotiations or an additional status conference will not result in either the disposition of a case or progress towards the disposition of a case. If the defendant wishes to proceed to trial, a trial memorandum is prepared and reviewed on the record and a trial date is set. No motions are normally heard after this event and a plea cutoff is in effect. A plea cutoff means that, after the last status conference, the State’s plea offer is withdrawn and the defendant must either proceed to trial or enter a plea to the indictment without a recommendation from the State. Negotiated pleas shall not be accepted absent the approval of the Criminal Presiding Judge based on a material change of circumstance, or the need to avoid a protracted trial or manifest injustice.
If a defendant decides to contest guilt, the defendant is entitled, by both the United States and New Jersey Constitutions,3 to a trial by a jury. The right to a jury trial generally applies to all criminal acts where the penalty for the offense exceeds six months in confinement. The right to a jury trial can be waived by the defendant if the court approves. If the judge grants such a request, the judge alone hears the case. This is known as a bench trial.
In criminal cases a jury consists of 12 persons. Normally, 14 persons are selected who sit and hear the case, with two designated as alternate jurors at the end of the trial. Once all 12 jurors and any alternates have been selected, the jury is sworn and is considered impaneled. If there are no pre-trial motions, the trial begins. The trial begins with opening statements by the prosecutor. Defense counsel may then choose to give an opening statement. After opening statements are complete, both sides present their evidence to the jury. The State presents its case first. When both sides have finished presenting their evidence, each side presents closing arguments to the jury. After closing arguments are finished, the judge charges the jury as to the applicable law. The jury then deliberates and eventually returns a verdict of guilty or not guilty. In order to return a guilty verdict the jury must be unanimous. If the jury is unable to arrive at a unanimous verdict (“hung jury”), the judge can declare a mistrial.
If your child has been accused of a crime it is important that neither you or your children answer questions, make statements or consent to searches by law enforcement.
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