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The average person has little or no understanding of the criminal justice system until they have been accused of a crime. Here are some common questions that defendants often have about the Florida criminal justice system:
For the police to make a lawful arrest in Florida, they must either have probable cause to make the arrest or possess a valid arrest warrant. To obtain an arrest warrant, a police officer will submit a written affidavit to a judge or magistrate. The affidavit must establish probable cause that a crime was committed and that the person named in the warrant committed the offense. If law enforcement provides false information or exhibits reckless disregard for the truth when offering an affidavit to an arrest warrant, the warrant may be invalidated.
Every person arrested in Florida, except those previously jailed, is entitled to a first appearance hearing before a judge within 24 hours of the arrest. At the hearing, the judge will explain the following to the defendant:
If possible, a determination will be made before the first appearance as to whether the defendant wants legal representation and whether they are able to afford it. If they cannot afford counsel but want a lawyer, one will be appointed for them. The judge will also determine the conditions of release and set the amount of bail at the first appearance hearing.
When a person is arrested for probable cause, the judge will typically set bond at the first appearance hearing. After the first appearance, the defendant can file a motion to have the bond reduced and a bond hearing will be set. At the bond hearing, the judge assigned to the case will review the motion and rule on it, based on a number of factors, including the defendant’s criminal record, ties to the community, and financial status.
An arraignment is a formal court hearing where the charges filed against a defendant are read aloud and the defendant must enter a formal response (plea) – not guilty, guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest).
A docket call is a pre-trial hearing in which the parties appear before a judge, discuss the status of the case, and agree on the dates of hearings, trials, and related matters so that they can be put on the court’s calendar. Requests for continuance or explanations for delays may also be made during a docket call.
Under Rule 3.190(c)(4) of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, a defendant is entitled to file a motion to dismiss a case on the grounds that no disputed material facts exist in the case and the undisputed facts do not amount to apparent guilt. A motion to dismiss is usually filed at the beginning of the legal process, e.g., after the preliminary hearing in a felony case.
A motion to suppress is a request made to the court to keep certain information from being heard at trial. In Florida, there are three types of suppression motions:
Motions for suppression are usually held before trial, and any testimony given at the motion hearing will not be used against the defendant at trial.
A plea offer, also known as a plea bargain, is an agreement between a prosecutor and a criminal defendant, requiring that the defendant plead guilty or no contest in exchange for reduced charges or sentencing. Accepting a plea offer can allow the parties to avoid the stress of a trial, help ensure a lighter sentence, and protect others impacted by the trial.
In Florida, pleading no contest (nolo contendere) means that a criminal defendant neither denies nor admits their guilt. By entering a no contest plea, the severity of a potential punishment could be lessened when the defendant formally admits culpability, which is not the same as admitting guilt.
During a deposition, witness testimony is taken under oath, out of court, to be preserved for trial. Depositions are automatically granted in Florida felony cases, but with misdemeanors, the criminal defense attorney must request that they be taken.
In Florida, the prosecution of all crimes (other than capital crimes) is done by indictment or information, and must contain the defendant’s name, race, gender, and date of birth (if known), along with an allegation of the facts constituting the offense being charged. Unlike an indictment, which must be signed by the foreperson of the grand jury returning it, an information must be signed under oath by the state attorney or a designated assistant state attorney.
Discovery is the process of formally exchanging information between the parties involved in the case. The information shared during the discovery process might be in the form of written questions and answers, depositions, and formal court pleadings, and pertains to the witnesses and evidence each party plans to present at trial.
In the U.S., a person accused of a crime has a number of inalienable rights, including the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, in most cases six or 12 jurors and an alternate. However, in Florida, a 12-member jury is only required in a capital case, and in all other criminal prosecutions, the jury will consist of six people. In a Florida criminal prosecution, the burden of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the verdict must be unanimous, meaning that each and every juror must be convinced of guilt for a guilty verdict to be returned.
The alternative to a jury trial is a non-jury trial, also known as a bench trial. In a non-jury trial, a judge listens to the evidence and makes the decision regarding the case. Although non-jury trials are typically used in minor misdemeanor cases in which the accused has no prior criminal history, some people decide to waive their right to a jury trial in favor of bench trial because they feel that a judge is more knowledgeable of the law and will grant them a more favorable result than a jury might.
A criminal appeal can be brought by defendant in a criminal case to have the case reviewed by the Florida Attorney General’s Office. Appeals are not trials and are not intended to give a party a second opportunity to argue the facts of their case, and the appellate court does not function as a jury. Rather, the purpose of an appeal is to review decisions of the trial court to determine if harmful error occurred that changed the outcome of the case in some way. It is important to note that not all errors made by the trial court will result in a reversal.