Victims and the Court Process – Frequently Asked Questions
As a victim or witness, your role is critical. You have seen, heard, know or experienced something that is important to the investigation of a case. If you have been the victim or witness of a crime, the first step in the criminal justice process is to immediately report the crime to your local police or sheriff’s department.
The police will ask you questions regarding the incident and will then prepare a police report. Tell the police exactly what happened: date, time, place, description of the offender(s), names and addresses of any witnesses (if possible), items that may have been taken, property that was damaged and injuries that you may have received. Be truthful in providing information. Please keep the agency advised where you are living and your telephone numbers.
How does a criminal charge get filed?
The police department will bring the police reports to the State’s Attorney’s Office to file a complaint. After reviewing the report, if the State’s Attorney’s Office determines that there is enough evidence to prosecute a case, a complaint will be issued and charges will be filed. If there is insufficient evidence, a complaint will not be issued, and no charges will be filed, although additional investigation may be required. If a complaint is filed and an individual is not arrested, the Police Department can seek to have a warrant issued.
What happens at the first court appearance?
If charges are filed and the accused person is arrested, he or she will soon appear in court. The Judge will set bond, any conditions of bond and advise the defendant of the charges against him.
The court considers several things when determining bond for the accused:
the nature of the offense, evidence, defendant’s employment status, mental condition, ties to the community and criminal history. In some cases, a “no contact” order will be entered as a condition of the defendant’s bond. That condition of bond will remain in place throughout the duration of the case or until further order of the Court. Should a defendant contact you after he or she has been ordered to have no contact with you as a condition of bond, call the police immediately, ask to file a police report and then notify the State’s Attorney’s Office that you have reported the incident. The State’s Attorney’s Office can review the police report to determine whether a violation has occurred and what action may be applicable.
What happens after the first court appearance?
Once bond is set, the Judge will set another court date for Preliminary Hearing or Arraignment. A preliminary hearing is a proceeding in which the judge determines whether there is enough evidence against the accused to be formally charged with the crime. An Arraignment is a proceeding in which the defendant is presented with the formal charges against him or her, typically enters a plea of not guilty and the judge may assign the case to a courtroom and schedule a first Pretrial date. Victims and witnesses are not required to be present at the bond hearing, preliminary hearing, arraignment or following pretrial stage. However, victims have the right to notice of and to attend a preliminary hearing or any post-arraignment hearing, Pretrial or post-trial court proceedings.
What happens during the Pretrial phase?
During the pretrial phase of the criminal court process, there may be a series of court dates. The pretrial phase consists of the prosecution and defense exchanging discovery/evidence, pretrial motions and hearings, plea negotiations, and trial preparation. Legal issues are addressed in open court by the judge during pretrial hearings. There may be many pretrial court dates and hearings before a case is resolved. Sometimes additional investigation may occur throughout the pretrial phase. There may be plea negotiations between the State and defense during the pretrial phase. If the case is not resolved with a plea, the case will most often proceed to trial.
When will I have to appear in court?
Victims of violent crimes have a right to attend any or all post arraignment or pretrial court dates but victims and witnesses do not have to. Typically, victims and witnesses are only required to appear at a jury trial or bench trial date. In some instances, however, you may be required to appear in court for a pretrial matter. In the event that your presence is required at such a hearing, you will be contacted via mail and/or telephone by the State’s Attorney’s Office. In some instances, victims or witnesses may receive a subpoena, which is hand-delivered in person by a Sheriff’s deputy or a State’s Attorney’s Office Investigator.
How will I be notified about my case?
Victims and witnesses are most often notified by mail and telephone. Victims may also register to receive notices through an automated victim notification system. Our Advocate is available to review your options regarding notifications and assist with registration. If you are required to be present in court under subpoena, a subpoena will be hand delivered by a Sheriff’s Deputy or a State’s Attorney’s Office Investigator.
What is a subpoena?
A subpoena is an order requiring the person named on it to appear in court. The subpoena will tell you when and where to appear and will have a telephone number on it should you have any questions. If your name, address or telephone number should change, notify the State’s Attorney’s Office immediately. Failure to abide by the subpoena may result in the witness or victim being found in contempt of court.
What will happen when I appear in court for trial?
A trial is held to determine if the prosecution can show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crimes he or she is accused of. In a jury trial, 12 citizens from the County area determine whether a defendant is found guilty or not guilty. In a bench trial, a judge will make that decision. Be aware that the defendant is entitled to be in the courtroom during the trial and will normally be represented by an attorney.
At trial, the prosecution will present admissible evidence obtained through the investigation. Evidence includes victim and witness testimony. If you are required to testify, it is at this time that you will be called to the witness stand to testify about what you experienced regarding the crime. The prosecution will ask you questions first (direct examination), the defense will have an opportunity to ask you questions (cross-examination) and the prosecution has another chance to ask any additional or follow up questions (re-direct). Due to the rules of evidence, witnesses are not allowed to be present in the room during any other witnesses’ testimony. However, victims of violent crimes have the right to be present at trial on the same basis as the accused unless the victim is to testify and the court determines that the victim’s testimony would be materially affected if the victim hears other testimony at the trial.
After both the prosecution and the defense have rested, the trial will proceed to closing arguments. Closing arguments are open to the public, victims have a right to be present, and victims and witnesses may attend at their own discretion. Deliberations may take a number of hours and once concluded, the verdict will be read by the judge in the courtroom. Some victims and/or witnesses want to be present for closings arguments and/or the verdict and some do not. Whether you attend closing arguments or the verdict is completely up to you.
Please be aware there is always a chance that the trial may be continued for any number of reasons. One of the parties may be sick or unavailable. The defendant could ask for more time to find a lawyer, get a new lawyer or further prepare his or her case. Sometimes, there are so many cases on the court call that all of them are unable to be heard in one day.
What should I do if I am threatened?
Anyone who seeks to threaten or bribe you into dropping charges or into not testifying is obstructing justice and may be committing additional crimes. Immediately report any threat or bribe to the police and to the Assistant State’s Attorney or advocate assigned to your case. If you are threatened or feel unsafe while attending court, please let your advocate know and arrangements can be made for a Sheriff’s Deputy to escort you to your car.
What should I do if a defense attorney contacts me?
The defense attorney has the right in a criminal case to interview all witnesses. You have the choice of whether you want to speak with him/her. If you would feel more comfortable having the Assistant State’s Attorney or advocate that is assigned to your case present at the interview, let them know that.
Will someone be in court with me?
You do not have to go through this process alone. The State’s Attorney’s Office has skilled advocates who are available to accompany you to court proceedings. The support they provide can be especially helpful at this time. An advocate can help you prepare for what to expect and deal with feelings about testifying in court or having to see the defendant in the courtroom. They can explain what will happen each step of the way, be a source of support and act as a liaison with the prosecutor. An advocate can help you navigate through this sometimes confusing and overwhelming process by:
Being a point of contact for information, support, and assistance
Notifying you of your rights as a victim
Notifying you of all court dates
Providing on-site court advocacy including being available to explain court proceedings, answer questions, offer support, act as a liaison with the prosecutor, and address any safety concerns and issues
Coordinating various support services such as arranging for a safe place to wait before testifying or for escorts to and from court
Assessing needs and providing referrals for counseling, financial assistance or other support services.
Assisting with completing the Crime Victim Compensation Application when applicable
Assisting with restitution documentation
When applicable, providing information about Victim Impact Statements and assisting with preparing Victim Impact Statements
Providing information about a defendants sentence, what to expect after a defendant has been sentenced and options are available to keep you informed and safer
Assisting with notification of a defendant’s release after completing a jail or prison sentence.