I promised to tell you more about the Ottawa County Court of Common Pleas on a regular basis. Our last article gave an overview of what we do, now perhaps I’ll delve into the specifics of how criminal cases come to us.
Unlike the Municipal or Juvenile Courts, police officers are not permitted to file their cases directly with this Court. Criminal cases come to this court either having been reviewed by the Municipal Court Judge in a Preliminary Hearing, or by being reviewed by the Grand Jury to determine if there is “probable cause” for someone to face charges. Probable cause means that a crime has probably been committed and the accused probably committed the crime. Only then can charges be filed in the Common Pleas Court. If the Municipal Court Judge finds there is probable cause, he then transfers the case to the Common Pleas Court. If the matter is heard by the Grand Jury and they find probable cause an “indictment” is given. The indictment is the document informing the accused that he or she has been accused of a crime and gives the general nature of the offense with which he or she has been charged.
Under either procedure the accused is served with formal charges, usually by the Sheriff. In some circumstances the accused is arrested and in others the accused is ordered to appear in court at a specific time and date. The prosecuting attorney makes the determination who is arrested and who is “summoned” into court.
The first appearance in court is called an “initial appearance.” This is where the accused is formally advised of the charges against him or her, the potential penalties involved, as well as his or her right to an attorney. If the accused is unable to afford an attorney, one is appointed to represent them from a list of local attorneys. Bail is then set. The purpose of bail is to ensure the accused returns for future court proceedings and to ensure that the accused is law abiding if he or she is out of jail while their case is pending.
We require that everyone who comes into court for a criminal offense of any type submit to a drug test to determine what, if any, drugs are in his or her system. We are testing for illegal drugs and drugs for which the accused does not have a prescription. When any accused is released into the community the court monitors them with drug testing on a consistent, but random basis. If the accused is found to have used drugs, the community release is terminated and they are sent to jail to await trial.
The second hearing is the “Arraignment” where the accused enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”. Following arraignment the case is set for “pretrial” where the prosecutor and the defense attorney exchange evidence and information in an effort to resolve the case, either through a negotiated plea to a less serious charge, “plea bargaining”, dismissal of the charges, or trial. Very few criminal cases proceed to trial, less than 2%. Plea bargains are given at the sole discretion of the prosecutor because he alone knows the quality of his case and the shortcomings, if any.
The next step in the process may be trial and I will cover that aspect in a later article along with jury service. If the accused is found guilty at trial the matter is set for sentencing. If the trial concludes with a “not guilty” finding, the charges are dismissed and the defendant is released. If rather than trial, a plea is negotiated between the prosecutor and defendant, the matter is set for “plea Change” where the defendant admits the charges. Again the matter is then set for sentencing.
Following the plea Change, the Probation Department of the court the engages in an investigation of the defendant, his or her criminal background if any the defendant’s mental health, drug and alcohol issues, and any other factors that may play a part in determining an appropriate sentence. It has been my experience that nearly 75% of the defendants who come before me have drug and or alcohol issues and as many as half have a mental health issue the requires medical intervention.
I review the report of the probation department before the sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing I listen to the prosecutor, the defendant’s attorney, victims and others before I make a decision about a sentence. While many have opinions as the proper sentence the final decision is mine alone. The law allows me a certain range of sentence, such as up to 12 months in prison, or up to life in prison depending on the seriousness of the offense, but in reality the law doesn’t permit me to send many defendants to prison. After plea bargains are made only 6% are eligible for prison. The remainder either spend time in our local jail or are placed on probation. I will talk more about these options in future articles.