You've probably seen parts of a jury trial on television, maybe also the moment of someone's arrest by police officers, but less familiar is the process that takes place between the person getting handcuffed and the trial.
It may appear from these depictions that the trial immediately follows the arrest, but that's not accurate. You may have raised the following questions:
- What happens between the arrest and the trial date?
- Who decides whether a suspect gets released during the pendency of their trial?
- Will they need to post bail?
- How much will the amount of bail be?
- What's a bail bondsman?
After law enforcement officers arrest a criminal suspect, the next step in the criminal case is processing the person into police custody, also known as "booking" at the police station. Next is determining their eligibility for pretrial release from custody in exchange for posting a set amount of money ("bail").
The court must abide by the state's criminal procedures, for example, holding a preliminary hearing if probable cause for the arrest warrant is challenged. As a result, the trial may not take place for several months, if at all. So, learning about the criminal law process is important to know what to expect and your rights before trial.
Booking Process: The Basics
Collecting information about the suspect who has been arrested is booking. Typically this includes:
- Taking a photograph and fingerprints
- Recording your name, address, and phone number
- Providing identifiers such as height, weight, and eye color
- Signing an inventory for your personal property
Booking procedures are relatively standard and vary little between suspects. The purpose is to record details that identify the person. Those arrested for minor criminal offenses (other than felony cases or higher-level misdemeanors) are typically given a written citation instead of the booking process. They agree to appear in criminal court at an assigned time by signing the citation. A court date will be set later at arraignment.
A bail hearing is often combined with an arraignment hearing where the defendant will enter a plea and argue for pre-trial release to a judicial officer in district court. Bail refers to money deposited with the court to help ensure that the suspect doesn't flee the jurisdiction and appears for future court dates. Courts determine the amount during the bail hearing.
Bail and bond conditions can vary greatly depending on the following:
- The jurisdiction of the alleged crime
- The seriousness of the criminal charges
- The defendant's criminal history
- The defendant's financial resources
- The defendant's physical and mental condition
- The defendant's length of residence in the county or state
- The defendant's likelihood to make future court appearances.
The bail hearing is the defendant's first appearance in court, where the judge decides whether to release the defendant without bail, deny bail and detain the defendant until the trial, or set bail terms for release. The court will deny bail altogether when a suspect is a danger to the community based on their criminal record or if they're a flight risk.
A suspect can present evidence at their bail proceedings to rebut any negative factors listed above. For example, a criminal defense lawyer may offer to have the suspect surrender their passport or show their strong community ties as further assurance they are not a flight risk.
If the defendant or their family cannot meet the bail amount, they can meet with a bail bond agent. This commercial agent pays a bond to the court on the defendant's behalf for a small fee to secure their release. The bail bond is a sum of money paid upfront to guarantee the defendant will attend all future court dates. If they fail to appear, the defendant forfeits the fee.
Release on One's 'Own Recognizance'
In some cases, a suspect is released after booking on their "own recognizance" (or "O.R."). In these instances, the suspect pays no bail but promises in writing (and is subject to arrest for failure to comply) that they'll appear for all upcoming court proceedings. Again, the court will allow an O.R. release only in situations where the suspect isn't considered a risk to the community, along with other considerations listed in the previous section.
Also, O.R. releases often require additional conditions. For example, drunk driving suspects with multiple driving under the influence (DUI) offenses are often required to immediately surrender their vehicles and enroll in alcohol treatment classes in exchange for O.R. release.
Talk to an Attorney if You Have Questions
The court system is complex, and the booking and bail process can come and go faster than you think. Also, even offenses you consider minor can have collateral consequences. For example, charges for domestic violence may affect where you can live and your employment. You must understand your options in the criminal process. An attorney can:
- Provide a free consultation after a grand jury indictment
- Negotiate a plea bargain with a no-contest or guilty plea
- Highlight reasonable doubt in an opening statement
- Challenge insufficient evidence at trial
- File an appeal with the supreme court
Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney near you who can walk you through this process and advocate on your behalf. If you cannot afford a private attorney, the court can assign a public defender to your case at no cost.