One of the most common questions for people charged with crimes is “how long will it take to resolve my case?” It’s obviously important for defendants to know how long criminal charges will be hanging over their heads, as I tell all my clients an open criminal case will probably be the most stressful thing in their lives until it is resolved. Unfortunately, it is impossible to precisely predict the length of a case because its duration will depend on a number of factors, including: the nature of the charges; the complexity of the investigation; the custody status of the defendant; and the availability of the court.
Most of the time, a district court case is resolved between eight months and one year after the arraignment. And most of the time, a superior court case is resolved between one year and two years after the arraignment. However, these timelines are subject to unexpected delays that could extend cases for much longer periods of time.
There are some certainties
- Defendants who are in custody receive preferential treatment regarding scheduling. They are entitled to return to court every 30 days and their cases will be scheduled for trial ahead of defendants who are not in custody. Therefore, a defendant who is in custody will likely have his case resolved before a similarly-situated defendant who is on the street.
- Superior court cases take longer to resolve than district court cases. It’s time consuming to even get a case started in superior court. A district court case is initiated when a police officer drops a report off at the clerk’s office and a complaint is generated (which can all happen in the same day). A superior court case is initiated when the grand jury returns an indictment (which can take months). Once the case is pending in superior court, there are more discovery hearings and status conferences than district court, and superior court trials are usually much longer than district court trials.
- At the beginning of every criminal case, the defendant is arraigned. An arraignment is a court proceeding (open to the public) where the defendant is officially informed of the charges against him. A plea of not guilty is automatically entered on the defendant’s behalf. At the arraignment, the judge will ask whether the Commonwealth is requesting cash bail or conditions of release. The Commonwealth can request: the defendant be held without bail; the defendant be required to post cash bail; or the defendant be subject to conditions of release (such as drug screens or an order to stay away from the alleged victim).
- If the Commonwealth requests the defendant be held without bail, there will be a dangerousness hearing where the prosecutor will have to prove by clear and convincing evidence there are no conditions of release that could be imposed on the defendant that would assure the safety of the community. A dangerousness hearing is usually held between three and seven days after the arraignment, and the defendant will be in custody during that time.
- At the pretrial conference, the defense attorney and the prosecutor will meet and jointly sign a pretrial conference report that is then submitted to the court. The pretrial conference report outlines each party’s discovery obligations. Discovery is the process where the Commonwealth provides to the defendant all of the evidence to be used at the trial, along with any exculpatory evidence (evidence which is helpful to the defense) that is in the care, custody, and control of the prosecutor. After the Commonwealth produces all its evidence, the defendant is obligated to produce reciprocal discovery, which is any evidence the defense will introduce at trial. The defendant is also required to provide notice to the Commonwealth if a mental health defense will be argued.
Compliance and Election (C&E) Hearing
- The compliance and election hearing provides an opportunity for the Commonwealth and the defendant to report to the judge that discovery is complete. As a practical matter, it typically takes several C&E dates before the Commonwealth has satisfied its discovery obligations (in drug cases, for example, it might take six months or more for the state crime lab to test and confirm the substance is an illegal narcotic). After discovery is complete, the defendant elects the next event – a motion to dismiss or suppress; a change of plea hearing; or a trial.
Motion to Dismiss Hearing
- A motion to dismiss will be successful if the Commonwealth failed to establish probable cause for the offense in the police report (for district court cases) or during the grand jury proceedings (for superior court cases). It is also appropriate for a defendant to file a motion to dismiss if the police failed to issue a citation in a timely manner in a motor vehicle case or if the Commonwealth failed to abide by speedy trial guidelines.
Motion to Suppress Hearing
- A motion to suppress evidence is filed in cases where the defendant alleges the police obtained evidence in an illegal manner. At a motion to suppress hearing, the Commonwealth is required to prove that the defendant’s constitutional rights were not violated. If the defendant wins the motion to suppress and the Commonwealth’s critical evidence is thrown out, the case will sometimes be dismissed.
Plea and Sentencing Hearings
- After the discovery process is complete, the defendant and defense attorney will review the evidence and evaluate the chances of winning the case at trial. If the Commonwealth has a strong case, the defendant might decide to plead out and elect for a sentencing hearing. In almost every case, the judge will tell the defendant beforehand what the sentence will be in the event of a plea.
- If the defendant asserts his innocence, or if the defendant believes the Commonwealth cannot prove the case, there will be a trial. The defendant can choose between a jury trial (12 jurors in superior court; 6 jurors in district court) or a bench trial (a trial with no jury – the judge will decide guilt or innocence). In either type of trial, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. District court trials typically last one or two days. Superior court trials usually last at least one week. If the defendant is found not guilty, the case is over. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge will impose a sentence.
If you are charged with a crime, litigating the case will be a time-consuming, grueling process. While there are parts of the process you cannot control, you can put yourself in the best position to win your case by hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Attorney Chris Spring today to schedule a free consultation.