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Your Des Moines Criminal Case: The Basics

Des Moines has been known for bouncing back from adversity. The city has survived great floods and challenging economic times. In fact, it is now one of the "Best Places For Business And Careers." With this background, people don't often think of DSM when they think of crime. Still, misunderstandings may occur, and you need help handling a criminal case in Iowa's capital city. FindLaw presents this guide to the basics of your, or a loved one's, criminal case.

Immediate Concerns

You might be concerned about where an arrested or convicted person may be incarcerated. Prisoners are typically held in the Polk County Jail. If you have questions about bail, visitation, court dates, and related subjects, visit the Sheriff's "Jail How Do I…" webpage.

Types of Crimes

State law creates two basic categories of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. Within those two basic categories, there are classes of felonies and misdemeanors, and each crime is defined as being within a certain class.

Felonies are more serious crimes. Class "D" felonies, receiving the least severe punishment, come with a minimum fine of $750. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $7,500 fine. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are relatively minor. The least significant of which, "Simple Misdemeanors," are punishable by no more than a $625 fine or 30 days in county jail.

Both Misdemeanor and Felony matters are handled at the Polk County Courthouse at 500 Mulberry Street. See FindLaw's resource page on Des Moines courthouses for more information.

Initial Appearance

In many cases, a person may be arrested without a warrant because a police officer believes that he/she has observed a crime being committed. In such a case, Iowa courts aim to have an arrested person appear in front of a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. At this time, the magistrate will:

  1. Determine if there was enough evidence to support an arrest;
  2. Set bail; and
  3. Determine whether the arrestee is eligible for a public defender.

At times, the courts will be excused from conducting these appearances within 24 hours, but the rule requires an initial appearance "without unnecessary delay."

Public Defenders and the Attorney-Client Privilege

As a general rule, attorneys are not allowed to repeat a client's secrets related to the case. This means that your attorney -- even if he/she technically works for the government -- is not allowed to repeat the things that you say to him/her. There are exceptions to the rule, but unless your secrets are: (a) likely to cause future harm to another person, or (b) part of some fraudulent scheme, then your secrets are likely safe.

Some people are surprised to find out that public defenders' services are not entirely free of charge. You will be expected to pay an amount that you can afford for representation, transcripts, and other related fees. See the State Public Defender' s website for more information on your repayment obligations.

Preliminary Hearing

At the Appearance, the magistrate will determine if the accused would like a Preliminary Hearing. If the answer is yes, the State will have to put on evidence that a crime was committed and that the accused, or defendant, is to blame. The defendant will be able to cross-examine witnesses and present his/her own case as to why he/she should not be held. A Preliminary Hearing will not be available in all cases. Speak to your attorney for information on whether you are entitled to one, and advice as to whether you should elect to have one.


As soon as practicable, the court must conduct an arraignment. This is the point at which the court officially states which charges it brings against the defendant. If you are arraigned, you have a right to have counsel present, and you must at this time plead "guilty," "not guilty," or state that you have already been convicted or acquitted.

Pre-Trial Motions

Before your case goes to trial, you and your attorney will have some opportunity to object to the State's evidence against you and give notice of certain defenses. Some motions must be submitted to the court within 40 days of your arraignment, while others must be submitted at least nine days before trial. Speak with your attorney or a court officer for exact details related to your case.

Jury Trial

In most cases, a defendant will be entitled to a twelve-member jury. If only charged with a simple misdemeanor, a defendant will be entitled to only a six-member jury. In either case, a defendant may waive his/her right to a jury and have a judge decide the case.

Regardless of the case and its particulars, a defendant may want to consider consulting a criminal defense attorney to learn about their rights, options, and potential consequences in a case.

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