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Steps in an Adult Criminal Case

What are the steps in court for a criminal case involving an adult?

In general, criminal cases have the following steps:

Each step is described below.

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When does the defendant go to court for the first time?

If the charge is for a misdemeanor crime, the defendant will have an arraignment. If the defendant is in jail, the arraignment will happen within 24 hours of the arrest. If the prosecutor does not file a charging document by the time of arraignment, the judge releases the defendant from jail. The prosecutor can still file charges later. If the defendant was not in jail, the arraignment may be scheduled within a few weeks.

If the charge is for a felony crime, the defendant goes before the court within 24 hours after arrest and it is called a "first appearance." This may also be called a “Rule 5 hearing” or “initial appearance.” At the first appearance, a judge reads the charges and advises the defendant of his or her rights. There will be an arraignment at a later date.

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What happens at the arraignment?

At the arraignment, the judge tells the defendant

The defendant must enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest.

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What is a plea?

A plea is the defendant’s response to a criminal charge. There are 3 options for a plea:

Not Guilty which means the defendant says he or she did not commit the crime. Sometimes, defendants enter a plea of not guilty as a strategic decision during plea bargaining or because they want to go to trial and force the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant refuses to make any plea, the court enters a plea of not guilty.

Guilty which means the defendant admits he or she committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record.

No Contest (also known as "nolo contendere") which means the defendant does not contest or disagree with the charge. This plea has the same effect as a guilty plea in terms of the defendant’s punishment, except the conviction generally cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.

A no contest plea is only available when there is open sentencing. A defendant cannot enter a no contest plea when accepting a plea agreement from the state.

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What happens after the defendant enters a plea?

If the defendant pleads not guilty at the arraignment, the court will set a further hearing. If the case does not resolve, there will be a trial.

If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, it depends on the type of crime what happens next.


If the defendant charged with a misdemeanor pleads guilty or no contest, the judge will tell the defendant about the penalties for the offense and the rights the defendant gives up with that plea. The judge makes sure that the defendant enters the plea voluntarily and without being under the influence of any substances, and that no one threatened or tricked the defendant into pleading guilty. In misdemeanor cases, the judge usually sentences the defendant immediately after the plea.


If the defendant charged with a felony pleads guilty or no contest, the court tells the defendant about the possible penalties, makes sure there is a factual basis for the plea, and decides whether the defendant entered a knowing and voluntary plea. Then, the judge sets a date for sentencing or may sentence at the time of the plea agreement.

If the defendant is in jail at the time of arraignment, after the defendant enters a plea, the judge will:

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What happens if the defendant does not show up for court?

The prosecutor can add another charge for failure to appear. The defendant may lose the money they put up for a secured bond if they paid bail to get out of jail. If there was a third-party custodian who was supposed to make sure the person came to court, the judge can hold that person in contempt. The judge can issue a warrant for the defendant’s arrest.

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What happens after the arraignment in misdemeanor cases?

In misdemeanor cases, if the defendant enters a not guilty plea at the arraignment and before the trial:

The judge and lawyers from both sides may talk about how the case can be resolved without going to trial.

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What happens after the arraignment in felony cases?

In Anchorage, the case goes to a pre-indictment hearing, grand jury or resolves.

In felony cases in other locations, after the arraignment, if the case does not settle or get dismissed the judge holds a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to make the defendant have to appear for a trial. If the judge decides that there is enough evidence, the prosecutor will file a document called "the Information" which is similar to a complaint that states the criminal charges. Then, the defendant will be arraigned a second time based on the Information. At that time, the defendant will enter a plea and a trial date will be set. Before the trial:

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What is a change of plea?

A change of plea is when a defendant decides to change their plea from either not guilty to guilty or no contest in some cases. A defendant can make this decision because:

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What is a preliminary examination in felony cases?

Many courts hold a preliminary examination which is a hearing where the judge will make sure that the evidence produced by the prosecutor’s investigation can establish probable cause that:

  1. a crime was committed.
  2. the defendant committed that crime.

A preliminary examination is conducted similarly to a trial, but there is no jury. The prosecutor presents witnesses and evidence to prove (1) a crime was committed and (2) the defendant committed that crime. The defense lawyer is able to question the witnesses and argue the weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case. After the prosecutor presents the evidence, the judge will make a determination.

If there is probable cause about these two facts, the court will allow the prosecution to move forward. The prosecutor usually meets this standard because it is much lower than the evidence needed to convict the defendant at trial. If the prosecutor does not show probable cause for any crime, the charge is dismissed. The prosecution can bring the same charges again later.

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What does it mean to "waive time"?

Felony defendants have a right to a grand jury within 10 days if in jail and 20 days if out of jail from the arraignment. (This is called "Rule 5 time" based on the criminal procedure rule that requires these timelines).

The defendant can waive or give up this required Rule 5 deadline for strategic reasons, often to negotiate a plea agreement. If the defendant wants the Rule 5 deadline, the prosecution most often takes the case to grand jury to try to get an indictment before the time runs out.

If the prosecutor decides not to go to the grand jury within the Rule 5 time, this does not mean the case is dismissed forever. The prosecutor can take the case to the grand jury within 120 days under Criminal Rule 45.

The prosecutor must file the Information within 15 days from the of the preliminary examination hearing.

The trial must start within 120 days of the arraignment on the Information, unless the defendant agrees to have the trial later (known as "waiving time"). It is very important for defendants to get advice from an attorney before they "waive time." Even if the defendant does not waive time, there are reasons why the trial may take longer.

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Can a defendant be released from jail before trial?

Depending on the issues and the law, a defendant may be let out of jail before the trial. The defendant can be released from jail:

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What happens at a bail hearing?

The defendant’s attorney can request a bail hearing and argue that the defendant won’t pose a danger to the community or victim (if there is one) if released. The bail hearing usually happens after the arraignment, unless the defendant posted bail at the police station. The defense attorney argues that the defendant can be safely released and the prosecutor either agrees or argues for restrictions. The judge decides whether to release the defendant before trial and what conditions are required.

Sometimes, a judge releases a defendant:

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What is a bond?

When setting bail, a judge may require a defendant to post:

When a judge requires both types of bonds, the judge must set a separate amount for each bond. There are different types of bonds:

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What happens if the defendant does not follow the conditions of release?

If the defendant does not follow the conditions, the judge can raise the bail, change the conditions, or put the defendant in jail.

The prosecutor can file a new charge of violating the conditions of release, or a separate charge of failure to appear if the defendant skips the court date. The defendant may lose a secured bond for failure to appear. The judge can hold a third-party custodian in contempt of court if he or she fails to tell the court about any violations of the conditions of release.

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What is discovery?

Discovery is the process where the criminal defense attorney and the prosecution exchange evidence before trial. The exchange of evidence is an important part of the criminal investigation and trial preparation. It can involve copies of the arresting officers’ reports, drug or alcohol test results and statements made by prosecution witnesses.

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What is an omnibus hearing?

Outside of Anchorage, many courts hold an omnibus hearing after the prosecutor charges a defendant with a felony, shortly before the trial date. The defense and prosecution make motions, which are requests for legal rulings by the judge before trial. The judge decides what evidence to admit, whether to order physical or psychological tests, which witnesses may testify, when the trial will take place, and other questions. Some courts such as Anchorage do not hold omnibus hearings.

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What is a discovery hearing?

In Anchorage, there will be a discovery hearing which is a status hearing to see if discovery is needed for the prosecution and defense to share the evidence, and whether any motions need to be filed about the admissibility of evidence.

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What is a pre-trial conference?

At the pre-trial conference, the court will set a trial date where the prosecutor will present the evidence to convince the jury that the defendant committed the crime charged.

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Are there ways to resolve a criminal case without trial?

Yes. Most criminal cases do not go to trial. Defendants often decide to plead guilty or no contest between the arraignment and the trial. Sometimes the defendant’s lawyer will negotiate with the prosecutor to reach a plea bargain or plea agreement that includes conditions about the arrangement.

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What is a plea agreement?

In a plea agreement (also called a plea bargain or plea deal), the defendant agrees to give up the right to trial, and pleads guilty or no contest. In return, the prosecutor agrees to dismiss or reduce some charges, or to make or to make specific sentencing recommendations or the sentence may be up to the judge to decide called “open sentencing.” If the defendant decides to plead guilty or no contest, the judge holds a hearing to be sure the defendant

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Can judges reject plea agreements?

Yes, but only in rare cases. Judges can reject an agreement that is too lenient or too severe under the sentencing laws that apply to the charge(s) to which the defendant pled. Judges cannot reject a "charge agreement" where the prosecutor bargains to reduce the charges against the defendant; the judge can only consider the appropriate sentence for the reduced charges. A judge cannot reject a plea agreement just because the judge thinks that the prosecutor could prove a more serious charge.

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Rev. 30 April 2019
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