Being arrested and charged with a crime like a DUI can be confusing, stressful, and terrifying. A lawyer will help you understand the process and provide guidance and insights that will help you to make the best possible decisions.
But what if you don’t have a lawyer yet? Or what if a loved one is involved in a criminal case? How can you help? What can you do? Start by reading today’s post, where I’ll help you understand the process of court appearances and trials and what you can expect.
After you’re arrested, your first court appearance is known as an arraignment. The presiding judge will read you your rights, as well as any possible penalties for any and all criminal charges. You’ll then need to enter a guilty or not guilty plea.
If you plead guilty – you will be sentenced right then and there. You may have the opportunity to explain your situation to the judge and have him or her take your unique circumstances into consideration, but if you plead guilty with an explanation your case will not be dismissed. You are pleading guilty – don’t expect the judge to understand and then make your charges go away, that will not happen.
With few exceptions, pleading guilty is a very bad idea. If you plead guilty, it is very rare to be able to undo that and plead not guilty later. Your case will be over and you will accept whatever punishment the judge gives you, with no opportunity to speak to the prosecutor, look at the evidence or negotiate a known plea outcome.
Pleading not guilty allows you to explore your options and better understand your rights. You no longer have any rights after you plead guilty.
If you plead not guilty, the court will transfer your case into what is known as a contested case. A prosecutor will be assigned to the case and your criminal matter is assigned a cause number.
The judge will then likely set certain conditions of bail. Bail will allow you to stay out of jail while your case is pending. When it comes to DUI and related charges, it is not unusual for the Court to order you to not drive, be subject to some type of daily alcohol monitoring and other restrictions. This can include a SCRAM ankle bracelet or some type of pre-trial probation where you must pass a breath test up to twice a day.
The Omnibus Hearing or “OMNI” hearing is the second hearing after your initial appearance. This is a scheduling hearing where you usually have to be present.
At the hearing the Prosecution will tell the court whether they have provided all the evidence to the defense. The Defense will tell the judge if any pretrial motions will be file and if so, briefing schedules are set.
The Omnibus hearing does not take very long, and the Defendant does not have to say anything, they must simply be present. The judge will also likely set the dates for a final pretrial hearing and the trial date at this hearing.
Change of Plea Hearing
A Change of Plea Hearing only occurs if the Prosecution and Defense have reached a plea agreement.
At this hearing, the Defendant will plead guilty to the crimes outlined in the negotiated plea agreement. In most misdemeanor cases the Defendant will change their plea and be sentenced at that same hearing.
Once the Defendant is sentenced the case is over and the Defendant must comply with their sentence which may include jail time, fines, probation, or other conditions. In some cases, a Defendant will have to go to the probation office that day and provide a breath, urine, or blood test and begin other terms of the plea agreement.
In Felony cases, after a change of plea hearing, the Defendant will need to go to the Felony probation office (that same day) to complete paperwork for what is called a Pre Sentence Investigation or PSI.
A PSI is a document probation prepares for the Judge. A PSI provides the judge with the entire background of the Defendant and helps the judge determine if probation is an appropriate sentence for the charges included in the plea agreement. There is a lengthy questionnaire that must be filled out as well as an in person interview. Your entire criminal history will be explored by the probation department.
Often, a Defendant will be tested for alcohol or drugs after a change of plea hearing, so be prepared for that.
The Sentencing Hearing for misdemeanor crimes usually happens at the same time they change their plea. However, in Felony cases a Sentencing Hearing is separate and usually takes place 2 months after a change of plea hearing. The reason for the delay is to prepare the PSI in felony cases.
The Sentencing Hearing is when the judge actually imposes a sentence. It is also considered the day a Defendant is actually “convicted” or your conviction date.
After the sentencing date the court does not have any further hearings and the Defendant is expected to complete their sentence.
If probation is a condition of a sentence, the Defendant must be prepared to stay in the city that they are sentenced in, even if they live out of town. The Probation Department is the only agency that can allow travel at that point, and often they will not allow a Defendant to travel out of town until everything is checked out and they have met with the Defendant.
Defendants that live out of state must attempt to enter into an Interstate Compact agreement where they can transfer their probation out of state from Montana.
That process is not immediate and can take several days to several weeks to complete.
Final Pretrial Hearing
If no plea agreement has been reached, a Final Pretrial Hearing will be one of the last hearings conducted before a trial date is actually set. This hearing usually happens 3-4 months into the case, but can take longer than that due to continuances.
Often this date is used as a cutoff date to accept any plea agreements. Typically, after this date a judge will not accept any plea agreements and the defendant will either have to plead guilty to the charges or go to a trial.
A trial occurs if no plea agreement can be reached. A Defendant may have either a jury trial or a judge trial. In a jury trial, 12 jurors (plus alternates) are selected and the Defense and Prosecution present their evidence for the case. In a judge trial, the decision of guilt or innocence is left to the presiding judge.
Trials can often take at least several days and are held in the actual courtrooms that are open to the public. After all evidence is presented, the judge or jury will consider the evidence and find the Defendant guilty or not guilty. A third possibility, known as a hung jury occurs in a jury trial when the jury is unable to reach guilty or not guilty verdic.
If found not guilty, the Defendant walks out of the court and the case is over.
If found guilty, the judge will set a sentencing hearing and the Defendant will be sentenced on the crimes found guilty of.
If a hung jury occurs, the Prosecution has the options of trying the case again, or simply letting the case go and not having another trial– in essence the Defendant’s charges are dismissed.
No lawyer can ever guarantee a positive outcome to any trial and the final decision is in the hands of the jury members or the presiding judge.
What Should You Do Now?
If you or someone you care about is facing criminal charges, the first thing you need to do is find a lawyer you can trust.
At the Judnich Law Office, we’ve been representing clients in Montana for nearly 20 years. We have the experience you need to help guide you through all of your court appearances, including a trial.
We’ll help you make the best decision and fight for your rights. We can help negotiate a plea agreement for DUI’s and other criminal charges, but we know that a trial may be necessary and are willing to go the distance for all of our clients.
If you’d like to know more, call us at (406) 721-3354 or contact us to learn more.
Marty is a former criminal prosecutor in the Cascade County Attorney’s Office and now uses that experience to defend those accused of crimes. A University of Montana School of Law graduate, Marty focuses his practice on personal injury and criminal defense and is a premier DUI defense attorney. He is also well versed in the insurance claims industry and has negotiated significant settlements with nearly every major insurance company.