What Is the Criminal Process in Georgia?

Attorney holding a pen, and clipboard explains to client with hands over hands

Facing criminal charges can be a confusing and traumatic experience, especially since the criminal process in Georgia is somewhat complex. Navigating through the system is one important reason why representation by legal counsel is essential, in addition to ensuring that your rights are fully protected. In this discussion, our criminal defense lawyers at Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia provide an overview of the criminal process in Georgia.

Georgia Courts with Criminal Jurisdiction

Multiple Georgia courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases. Which court handles a particular case depends on the nature of the charges and whether the charge is a misdemeanor or felony. These are the courts that may be involved in a criminal case:

  • Georgia Superior Courts are trial courts of broad, general jurisdiction with authority over criminal cases. Felony trials occur in Superior Court. If a county does not have a State Court, the Superior Court will also hear misdemeanor violations.
  • Georgia State Courts exercise limited jurisdiction over misdemeanors.
  • Magistrate Courts issue warrants and hear minor criminal offenses and violations of county ordinances. Magistrates issue search and arrest warrants and hold preliminary hearings. In some criminal matters, magistrates are authorized to set bail. Magistrate courts do not hold jury trials.
  • In counties that do not have a State Court, the county Probate Court may hear traffic violations, certain misdemeanors, and citations relating to state fish and game laws.
  • Cities in Georgia may establish Municipal Courts to handle traffic offenses, conduct preliminary hearings, issue warrants, hear violations of city ordinances, and hear certain misdemeanor cases.
  • Juvenile Courts handle certain cases involving juveniles under the age of 17 and may exercise jurisdiction involving probation over juvenile offenders until one is 18 years of aged. Under Georgia law, anyone over 17 years of age is treated as an adult for purposes of criminal jurisdiction. In addition, certain felony violations committed by a juvenile can be transferred to Superior Court and the juvenile can be prosecuted as an adult.

The Supreme Court of Georgia and Court of Appeals of Georgia are the state’s two appellate courts of review that handle appeals in criminal cases.

Stages of the Criminal Process in Georgia

Every Georgia criminal case follows a process. For a specific case, the exact process depends on the nature of the charges, the category of the offense, and the jurisdiction filing the charge. Typically, a case proceeds through the following stages.

Arrest and Booking

Arrest of a defendant is the first stage of a Georgia criminal case. Law enforcement officers make arrests both with and without a warrant. After arrest, if law enforcement seeks to interrogate the accused, the officer must advise the accused of the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present before answering questions. These rights are referred to as the Miranda rights.

You always have these Constitutional rights, even before police read them during an arrest. During an investigation before arrest, you can exercise the right not to provide information to law enforcement (except to identify yourself if asked) and to have an attorney present during questioning. While these are rights you have, be forewarned that you will not always be treated with deference if you exercise your right to remain silent and seek legal counsel. Regardless of the response from law enforcement, it is always wise to seek advice from legal counsel before making a statement.

After formal arrest, police take the defendant to the police station or local sheriff’s department for booking, which includes taking photographs and fingerprints and formally entering the case into the criminal justice system.

Initial (First) Appearance

The initial appearance of a defendant is the first time the person appears before a judge. The appearance takes place within 48 hours of an arrest for a warrantless arrest or within 72 hours for an arrest with a warrant.

At the initial appearance, the judge makes certain the defendant understands the charges. The judge also inquires whether the defendant has retained an attorney or is indigent and requires court appointment of a lawyer. Every person charged with a crime has the right to legal counsel, regardless of the nature of the charges against them.

A large number of cases have a bond amount pre-set by the magistrate court. If the violation is a violation for which a bond has been pre-set, the accused may post a bond and be released without a first appearance hearing before an actual judge.

Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing usually is held in Magistrate Court. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether probable cause exists to support the charges. The determination does not relate to guilt or innocence, but rather to whether there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the case.

If the court determines that probable cause exists, the judge sends the case to the appropriate court for trial. Once a defendant posts bond and is released from jail, the defendant has waived the right to a preliminary hearing. However, in some counties, the court will still honor the request for a preliminary hearing. Whether to make such a request depends on the jurisdiction and is a decision to be addressed with your defense attorney.

Grand Jury Review

In Georgia, all capital felonies must be presented to a grand jury, which makes the decision whether to indict and formally charge the arrested person. If the grand jury issues a true bill, the person is formally indicted and charged with the crime. If the grand jury returns no bill, it means there was not sufficient evidence to formally charge the defendant, and the case is dismissed. The grand jury meets in private. The accused will not, typically, be involved or allowed to attend the grand jury proceeding.

Arraignment

The arraignment is a formal hearing in which the judge of a State Court or Superior Court reads the charges to the defendant, who enters a plea of guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere or no contest. In most circumstances, the defense attorney will file a written waiver of arraignment and a plea of not guilty. In most courts, the filing of the waiver will excuse the defense attorney and the accused from appearing in court. However, courts have different requirements. It is important to follow your attorney’s instructions on whether they need to appear even after filing a written waiver.

If the person pleads guilty or no contest, the case will be resolved without a jury trial. If a plea of not-guilty is entered, the Court will set the case down for a trial date.

Trial

Every defendant has the right to trial by a jury. In some circumstances, a defendant may agree instead to have a bench trial, which occurs before a judge rather than a jury. That decision should only be made after detailed discussions with the defendant’s criminal defense lawyer.

Pre-trial motions may precede the trial. However, most motions need to be filed at the time the case is arraigned. When the trial begins, it follows a specific process, which begins with jury selection. After the jury is seated, both sides make opening statements, with the prosecutor going first. Then both lawyers present evidence, with the prosecutor presenting their case before the defense lawyer presents evidence.

The lawyers have an opportunity for rebuttal, then the time for presenting evidence closes. Both sides make closing statements, the court charges the jury, and the jury deliberates the case. The jury may return a guilty or not guilty verdict. Occasionally, a trial ends in a mistrial, if the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision. At that point, the prosecutor re-evaluates the case and either retries the case or disposes of it in another manner.

Sentencing and Appeals

If the trial results in conviction, sentencing is scheduled after the end of the trial. Some convictions, such as murder, have mandated sentences that the judge must impose. However, a vast majority of sentences are left to the judge’s discretion.

Plea Bargaining

The process of plea bargaining between the prosecutor and the defendant’s lawyer begins early in a case and continues throughout the process, sometimes even during a trial. Plea negotiations are a give-and-take process, in which each attorney endeavors to get a satisfactory agreement. Sometimes plea bargaining leads to a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Other times, the process is not successful, and the case goes to trial.

Importance of Representation by a Criminal Defense Attorney

Regardless of what criminal charge you may face, representation by a criminal defense attorney is essential to ensure your rights are protected. You should retain an attorney with substantial experience in defending against Georgia criminal charges. Your lawyer helps you navigate through the entire process, while presenting the strongest possible defenses to the charges.

Schedule a Consultation with an Experienced Georgia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Our criminal and DUI defense lawyers at The McCoy Law Firm, LLC, have decades of experience representing defendants facing all types of misdemeanor and felony criminal charges throughout northwest Georgia. If you are under investigation or are facing any criminal charge, please contact Criminal & DUI Law of Georgia, or call us at (770) 382-0984 so we can begin working on your case right away.

Categories: Criminal Defense