Every criminal case begins with an investigation. Law enforcement officers investigate an alleged crime and make a report. This report might be very brief or it might be detailed. One officer might make one report or many officers might write many reports. Regardless, at some point these reports are assembled into a file which is sent to the District Attorney’s office possible legal action. For more detailed information, feel free to read our free online Texas Criminal Law Guide.
Someone might be arrested very quickly, but from that point on the process can be very slow. In Texas, in a misdemeanor case (one with a maximum jail sentence of one year) the District Attorney’s office decides whether or not to proceed with a criminal charge. The D.A.’s office proceeds by filing what is known as a “complaint”. In a felony case (one with a possibility of more than a year of confinement) the case must go to a “Grand Jury” which is a group of citizens who determine whether or not there is enough evidence to go forward (there almost always is).
If you are charged with a crime, realize that it is very likely that your case might drag on for a very long time. The only way for a criminal case to end quickly is with some sort of agreement. Sometimes that is with a very good deal for the defense or with the defense quickly admitting fault. Make sure you work closely with your attorney and are aware of the effects of taking or rejecting a plea offer.
At some point in a criminal case the prosecutor will make an offer to settle the case. Typically this involves some sort of a plea deal, but there are a large number of possibilities. Your attorney should be able and willing to explain the pros and cons to any offer.
At some point you will need to enter your plea. In the vast majority of cases there are three options. Guilty, Not Guilty or Nolo Contendere (No Contest). Guilty is fairly obvious, when someone pleads Guilty they are admitting that they did it. Typically, this is the result of some sort of a plea bargain.
Not Guilty means that the defendant is saying that they did not do it. In this case a jury will decide whether or not the prosecutor has proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Nolo Contendere (No Contest) means that you are not saying you did it, and you are not saying you didn’t do it… you are just saying you aren’t going to fight it. There are slight differences between pleading Guilty and Nolo Contendere, but ultimately, if you plead Nolo Contendere the judge will treat it the same as a Guilty plea.
If you don’t come to an agreement with the prosecutor, it is not unusual to wait over a year to get your trial. Ask your attorney what kind of timetable your particular court has to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Feel free to take a look at our criminal law guide. It can answer many basic questions and, more importantly, provide a good starting point for your own conversations with your own lawyer about your specific case.
There are a number of legal words and phrases that might not make sense to someone that doesn’t have experience with criminal law. If there is a particular word or phrase that you don’t understand that relates to criminal law, please consult our criminal law dictionary. If you don’t find the answer there, please use our form to the left to ask any questions you might have.