The criminal justice system can appear complex and overwhelming to those who encounter it for the first time. The following may help you understand how the system is organized, how a typical felony case proceeds, and what role our Office plays in the process.
Criminal Justice Process Flowchart


An arrest may occur either at the scene of a crime or later, after an investigation has developed probable cause to believe a specific person committed a particular crime. Sometimes an arrest may not occur until after a person has been indicted by a grand jury.

A suspect arrested on a felony charge is usually taken to jail and booked. Booking is the administrative processing and recording of an arrest. The booking process typically includes photographing and fingerprinting the suspect.
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Initial Appearance

A person booked into jail must have an Initial Appearance within 24 hours of arrest; in Pima County, Initial Appearances are conducted at the county jail. At the Initial Appearance, a judge or magistrate informs the suspect (now the "defendant") of the preliminary charges lodged against the person in an Interim Complaint. The judge will inform the defendant of his or her right to counsel and will appoint an attorney if the defendant cannot afford one. The judge will also set the amount of bail and other conditions for the defendant's release from custody and will schedule a date for the next court proceeding.

Some defendants are formally charged first, before arrest. They then will either be arrested or summoned into court, and their Initial Appearance will be combined with their Arraignment.
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Pretrial Release

In rare circumstances, the judge may order a defendant held in custody until trial, with no possibility of pretrial release. In most cases, however, the judge will allow the defendant to be released either (1) on his or her own recognizance, (2) into the custody of a family member or some third party, or (3) upon posting bail (or bond) in a certain dollar amount. A defendant released "on recognizance" is not required to post bail and is released based solely on the defendants promise to appear at all future court proceedings.

The reason for requiring some defendants to post bail is to help ensure their appearance at all necessary hearings and trial. When bail is required, the judge will set the amount based on such factors as the seriousness of the offense, the defendant's prior criminal record, and the likelihood that the defendant will appear as ordered, given his or her ties to the community.

Defendants who are released from custody after the Initial Appearance must adhere to specific conditions set by the Judge. These conditions may include such things as avoiding certain people or places and not drinking alcohol. If the defendant subsequently fails to attend a required court proceeding, an arrest warrant will be issued. If the defendant was released after posting a bond, the bond will be forfeited.
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Formal Charging Decision

Within 8 days (if the defendant remains in jail) or 18 days (if the defendant has been released from custody) after the Initial Appearance, a detective or other officer will present to a deputy county attorney all the evidence that has been gathered about the crime in question. The deputy county attorney will review the evidence and decide whether to issue formal charges against the defendant and, if so, what the charges should be.

The charging or "issuing" decision is a critical step in the criminal justice process. It is guided by legal and ethical rules that require a reasonable belief that the evidence is sufficient to convince a jury-unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, and despite any reasonable defenses-that the defendant is guilty of the charge.

The deputy county attorney may decide not to file formal felony charges. This could be because there is not enough evidence to charge the suspect or to prove the charges in court, because the attorney wants more information before making a decision, or because the case may be more appropriate for another court or jurisdiction. If this decision is made after a suspect has been arrested, the Interim Complaint will be dismissed and the suspect's release conditions vacated.
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Grand Jury or Preliminary Hearing

If the issuing attorney concludes the evidence is sufficient to file formal felony charges, that decision must then be reviewed by a neutral third party. This step provides an important check on the government's power to prosecute its citizens: a case may proceed only if the third party independently agrees there is "probable cause" to believe the named defendant committed the crime or crimes charged.

This probable-cause determination must be made within 10 days of the Initial Appearance if the defendant is in custody or within 20 days if the defendant is out of custody. It may be made in one of two ways, either by a Grand Jury or by a judge, at a proceeding called a Preliminary Hearing.

A Grand Jury is a group of citizen jurors who meet in a closed session to hear and evaluate evidence of criminal behavior. A Preliminary Hearing, in contrast, is a public proceeding held in a courtroom before a magistrate or judge. Under either procedure, the detective, the victim, and other witnesses may be called to testify.

If the result of the Grand Jury or the Preliminary Hearing is a finding that probable cause exists, the defendant is then "bound over" to Superior Court to face formal criminal charges. When the probable-cause finding is made by a Grand Jury, the formal charging document that results is called an Indictment. When probable cause is found by a judge at a Preliminary Hearing, the charging document is called an Information. If probable cause is not found to exist, the case will be dismissed.
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An Arraignment is a defendant's first appearance in Superior Court after being formally charged. The judge will verify the defendant's true name, inform the defendant of the offenses charged in the Indictment or Information, and will routinely enter the defendant's plea of not guilty to the charges. The court also schedules the next hearing in the case, which is usually a case management conference.
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In the weeks or months following the Arraignment, the parties engage in pretrial disclosure.  This is the legally required exchange of information between the prosecution and the defense.  The process of disclosure does not require a court hearing unless one party fails to comply, in which case the opposing party may file a motion with the court and request a hearing.

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Trial Preparation and Pretrial Motions

Between arraignment and trial, many activities occur as attorneys for both the prosecution and defense build their cases for trial. Each side reviews police reports, interviews witnesses (although victims of crime may refuse to be interviewed), examines the evidence, and conducts any additional investigation needed. A number of court proceedings may also occur, including status conferences and hearings on various motions. Such motions typically present legal issues regarding the admissibility or suppression of evidence, proposed modifications of the defendant's release conditions or bail, disclosure issues, plea negotiations, and other matters of concern to court and counsel, including the scheduling or rescheduling of the trial date.
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Non-Trial Disposition

Sometimes the parties will enter into a plea agreement in lieu of proceeding to trial. The agreement may provide that the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the original charges or to different charges, and it may include various conditions that the parties have agreed upon. The actual terms of a plea agreement can be complex and may include a stipulated sentence or sentencing range and an agreement to pay restitution. If there is a victim in the case, the victim will be consulted before a plea agreement is approved.

A plea agreement is one way a case may be resolved without a trial. The other is by dismissal of the charges.

The Pima County Attorney's Office works to ensure that the disposition in every case is the right one, based on the nature and severity of the offense, the dangerousness and criminal history of the defendant, the rights and wishes of the victim, and what is ethical. It is the County Attorney's policy to take violent, repeat offenders to trial instead of offering them plea agreements. The goal is to ensure that such offenders receive the maximum possible prison sentences, both to hold them fully accountable for their crimes and to remove dangerous criminals from the community for as long as possible.
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Trials in felony cases are held in Superior Court. Unless the parties have waived a jury in favor of having a "bench trial" before the judge alone, a jury will be selected before the lawyers make opening statements and before any witnesses testify.

Once the jury has been chosen, the prosecutor will make an opening statement outlining the facts of the case and the evidence the State will present. Defense counsel may then make opening remarks or may reserve an opening statement until later in the trial, after the state has finished presenting its case. After the opening statement or statements have concluded, the prosecutor then begins calling witnesses to testify on behalf of the State. The State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime or crimes charged.

All witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense will have been subpoenaed or sent a written summons to appear and testify at trial. All witnesses take an oath to tell the truth in court. Usually witnesses at trial are required to remain outside the courtroom until they are called in to testify. An exception exists for victims, who are entitled to be present in the courtroom whenever the defendant has the right to be present. Normally, once a witness has testified and been excused by the judge, the witness is free to leave or to remain in the courtroom.

Both the prosecutor and defense counsel are allowed to question all witnesses who testify. The questioning follows an alternating progression of direct examination, cross-examination, and redirect examination of each witness. All evidence presented at trial--including the testimony of witnesses and physical evidence like documents, articles of clothing, or other items--must comply with the Arizona Rules of Evidence. The trial judge decides what testimony and other evidence is legally admissible according to those rules.

After the prosecutor has presented all of the State's evidence, the prosecution rests its case, and the defense is allowed to present evidence. However, criminal defendants are not required to prove their innocence or to put on a defense. They are presumed innocent unless the State can prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt, and a defendant therefore may choose not to testify or to present any evidence at all.

If the defense does call witnesses and present evidence, the prosecutor may cross-examine those witnesses, just as defense counsel could cross-examine each of the State's witnesses. At the conclusion of the defendant's case, the prosecutor may offer additional evidence in rebuttal to dispute, contradict, or respond to the evidence presented by the defense.

Once all the evidence has been presented, the attorneys will give closing arguments, and the judge will instruct the jury on the legal principles applicable to the case. The jurors then retire to deliberate in private. During deliberations, the jurors review, weigh, and discuss the evidence presented at trial in light of the court's instructions until they have reached a verdict. A jury's verdict of guilty or not guilty must be unanimous. If all members of the jury cannot agree on a verdict, the jury is said to be "hung." The judge will declare a mistrial based on a hung jury, and usually the case will be scheduled for a new trial before a different jury.

If the jury unanimously finds a defendant not guilty (an "acquittal"), the charges are dismissed. A defendant acquitted by a jury cannot be charged or tried again for the same offense. If the jury finds the defendant guilty of one or more charges, the court will set a date for sentencing.
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Motion for New Trial

Defendants found guilty at trial may file a motion for new trial. The motion must be filed within ten days after the guilty verdict is returned. The legal grounds for granting such a motion may be such things as juror misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, denial of a fair trial, or other substantial legal error. Although frequently filed, motions for new trial are rarely granted. If the court does grant the defendant's motion, another trial will be scheduled. Unless it will be a bench trial, a new jury will be selected.
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After a defendant has pled or been found guilty, the judge will set a date for sentencing, usually within approximately 30 days. The judge will also order the Adult Probation Department--an arm of the Superior Court--to prepare a presentence report. The presentence report assists the judge in determining what sentence to impose by providing information about the defendant's personal, social, educational, employment, and criminal history and physical and mental health. It may contain other pertinent information the probation officer thinks the judge might want to know. The author of the report will also contact the victim to obtain a statement about the crime's emotional, physical, and financial effects on the victim and whether the victim is requesting restitution.

In some cases, the court may schedule one or more hearings before sentencing to consider such issues as restitution, aggravating and mitigating circumstances that might affect the sentence, or other matters. The purpose of a restitution hearing is to determine the amount the defendant should be ordered to pay the victim for any financial losses the victim sustained as a direct result of the crime. At an aggravation/mitigation hearing, the court considers the circumstances of the crime, the defendant's particular history and circumstances, and any other factors that might call for either a longer or shorter sentence. Testimony and other evidence may be presented at any presentence hearing.

A court's sentencing options include placing the defendant on probation, ordering the defendant to serve time in jail or in prison, or imposing a combination of those and other consequences, including fines. In imposing a prison sentence, the court has some-but not unlimited-discretion: the Arizona legislature has established sentencing ranges for all crimes, and a judge may not impose a sentence outside the applicable statutory range. The judge is also required by statute to order any restitution to which a victim is legally entitled.

At the sentencing hearing, both the victim and the defendant are allowed to speak before sentence is imposed. The judge will also hear the arguments of counsel and will sometimes receive additional evidence from both the prosecution and defense concerning what punishment is appropriate. After the court orally pronounces sentence, that sentence is incorporated into a signed, written order that serves as the formal Judgment of Conviction and Sentence.
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Motion to Vacate Judgment

Within 60 days after sentencing, a defendant may file a motion to vacate the judgment of conviction or sentence. By court rule, there are only three possible grounds for such a motion: that the court lacked jurisdiction over the prosecution, that important new evidence has recently been discovered, or that the conviction was obtained unconstitutionally. Like motions for new trial, motions to vacate judgment are rarely granted.
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New Trial

If the court orders a new trial, then another trial will be held. The same procedures will be followed as with the first trial. If it is a jury trial, rather than a bench trial, then a new jury will be selected.
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Defendants who were convicted after a trial may appeal their convictions and sentences to the Arizona Court of Appeals within 20 days after sentencing.  An appeal provides a means for correcting legal errors that may have occurred at trial.  An appellate court will not overturn a conviction or sentence unless the error of law was so significant that it likely changed the outcome of the case, directly affecting the eventual verdict or sentence.

Defendants who have pled guilty are not entitled to appeal, nor can the prosecution appeal from a not guilty verdict.

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Rule 32

Although unable to appeal, defendants who plead guilty or no contest may file a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief in the trial court.  Rule 32 is the procedural rule that governs, and thus the shorthand term for, such a proceeding.  Issues commonly raised in a "Rule 32 petition" are ineffective assistance of defense counsel, sentencing error, and newly discovered evidence.  If the trial court denies post-conviction relief, the defendant may seek review in the Court of Appeals.  Non-pleading defendants (those convicted at trial) may file both an appeal and a Rule 32 proceeding.  Most often, the Rule 32 proceeding is initiated after the appeal has concluded.

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Federal System

After exhausting all available appellate and post-conviction remedies in state court, defendants can sometimes still raise federal constitutional claims in a habeas corpus action in federal court pursuant to Title 28 of the United States Code, Section 2254.
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