Understanding The Criminal Justice System

(Felony Offense)

The following information contains only partial information contained in the Victims' Rights, Your Guide to the Criminal Justice System, Maricopa County Attorney's Office. To receive a complete brochure, contact the Justice Court Bureau (602) 506-8522.

The Crime

As a victim, you will probably have many questions about what to expect when you are involved in the criminal justice process. The following is a brief description of the process that must be followed to prosecute a person accused of committing a felony offense. If the offense was a misdemeanor or if the person accused of committing a crime is a juvenile, the steps involved in prosecuting the offender are different.

When you are the victim of a crime, you should immediately call 9-1-1 or the law enforcement agency (Police, Sheriff, or Department of Public Safety) which has responsibility for the area where the crime occurred. The best thing you can do is to call the law enforcement agency immediately; the longer you wait, the harder it will be to catch the criminal.

Initial Investigation

In most cases an initial investigation of a crime is conducted by a patrol officer who travels to the crime scene or the location of the victim, shortly after the crime is reported. The patrol officer will interview the victim(s) and any witness(es) when he/she arrives and will begin an initial report listing the circumstances of the crime. In addition, an officer may take photographs and dust for fingerprints during an inspection of the scene.

The patrol officer then completes an incident report.

Follow-up Investigation

A sergeant or another ranking officer then reviews the patrol officer's report.

Formal Charging Procedure

When the investigating officer believes that a suspect has been identified and that there is sufficient evidence, the case is presented to the prosecutor for review. If the prosecutor believes that the report provides sufficient evidence to indicate that the alleged offender has committed a crime, and if in his/her judgement the case has a reasonable likelihood of conviction at a trial, the prosecutor will file a Criminal Complaint or seek an Indictment from the Grand Jury. Sometimes, the prosecutor determines that there is insufficient "legal evidence" to justify filing a Criminal Complaint.

If filed, the Criminal Complaint/Indictment is then presented to a Judge, who will either issue a warrant authorizing the arrest of the suspect or a summons requiring the suspect to appear in court on a specific day.


When a defendant is arrested either near the scene of the crime or as a result of an arrest warrant, he or she is taken to jail. Within twenty-four (24) hours after the arrest, the defendant must be taken before a Judge or commissioner for an Initial Appearance. Many defendants are released at this time on their own recognizance (OR), a personal promise to return to court when required. When released on his/her own recognizance, the defendant is not required to post money bail or a bail bond because it is believed that he/she has sufficient community ties to assure his/her appearance. Defendants with serious records, those who have committed dangerous felonies, or those who have a history of not returning to court as required are either held in jail or released after posting a cash bond. The amount of bond set by the Judge or commissioner depends on many factors including the type of crime for which the person has been arrested.

Most defendants are released after the Initial Appearance, but their travel is limited. Contact between the defendant and victims or witnesses is also restricted. It is against the law for anyone to harass or intimidate a witness. Any harassment should be reported to the police, the prosecutor, or the Victim Witness Division as soon as possible. Remember that if the harassment is not reported, it probably will not stop.

Preliminary Hearing / Grand Jury

After felony charges are filed, a hearing is scheduled to determine whether or not there is sufficient evidence (probable cause) to justify holding the defendant for trial. Probable cause is determined either by a Justice of the Peace at a Preliminary Hearing or by a Grand Jury. A Grand Jury is made up of a group of citizens (usually 9-16 people), selected at random. In both proceedings, the victim(s) or witness (es) may be called to testify.

Sometimes charges against the defendant are dismissed because either the Justice of the Peace or the Grand Jury determines that there is insufficient evidence to justify a trial. If additional evidence comes to light at a later date, it is possible for charges to be refilled. If probable cause is present, the case is forwarded to Superior Court for further proceedings. This is accomplished by an Indictment issued as a result of the Grand July hearing or an Information that is filed by the County Attorney after the Preliminary Hearing.

A probable cause determination is not necessary if the offense charged is a misdemeanor.


The first appearance of the defendant in Superior Court is called an Arraignment. The Arraignment serves several purposes. First the defendant is informed, for the first time, of the exact nature of the charges against him/her. The defendant is also advised that he/she should have an attorney and if he/she cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided at public expense. The defendant is asked to enter a plea to charges against him/her. Normally, a plea of "not guilty" is entered and a pre-trial/status conference and a trial date are set. Defendants are entitled to a speedy trial. If the defendant remains in custody, a trial date must e set within one hundred twenty (120) days from the initial appearance or ninety (90) days from arraignment, whichever is the lesser. Defendants released from custody on bail or personal recognizance must receive a trial date within one hundred fifty (150 days) days from initial appearance. In extraordinary circumstances, the trial may occur later than these time frames.

If the charged offense is a misdemeanor, the defendant will be arraigned at a Justice Court.

If a defendant enters pleas of "guilty" at arraignment, a sentencing date is set. If the defendant pleads guilty to a misdemeanor at the arraignment, the defendant may be sentenced at that time.

Pretrial Actions / Hearing

After the arraignment and before a trial, there are many activities performed in preparation for trial. By Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure both the prosecutor and defense must disclose information to the other party. This process, called discovery, includes providing the defense attorney with a copy of the police report(s) and any other written information and includes interviews with prospective witnesses. In Arizona, the defense has the right to interview all of the State's witnesses prior to trial or a plea agreement. As the victim, you have the right to refuse to submit to a pre-trial interview, deposition or other discovery request by the defendant, the defendant's attorney or other person acting on behalf of the defendant. If anyone approaches you about the case, you should insist that he/she identify him/herself as representing either the prosecution or the defense.

In addition to discovery, there may be several court hearings that are scheduled before the trial. At the court hearings, called Pre-trial Conferences, Status Conferences ore Pre-trial Hearings, motions may be heard from either the prosecutor or the defense regarding the admissibility of evidence, pre-trial release of the defendant or other matters of concern to the attorneys or the court. Unless you are subpoenaed to appear for a pre-trial hearing, you do not need to be present, unless you so desire.

Plea Agreements

Before the trial, the Deputy County Attorney prosecuting the case may discuss the possibility of a negotiated case settlement with the defense attorney. The defense attorney may seek an agreement enabling the defendant to plead guilty to the original charge(s) or to some lesser charge(s), a dismissal of certain charges, a commitment from the Deputy County Attorney not to file additional charges, or an agreement to recommend a particular sentence. The Deputy County Attorney would like to confer with you about a plea agreement before it is entered in court. Please contact the Deputy County Attorney or Victim Witness Advocate to express your opinion about a plea agreement.

If an agreement is reached, the attorneys and the defendant appear before a Judge for a change of plea hearing. The defendant enters a plea of guilty as agreed, and signs a form declaring that he/she is knowingly giving up various rights, including his/her right to a trial and the right to cross examine witnesses. As a victim, you have the right to be present and to make a statement expressing your opinion about the plea agreement. The Judge may consider your opinion when deciding whether or not to accept the plea agreement. Upon the acceptance of the plea agreement the Judge will enter a finding of guilt against the defendant.


If a plea agreement is not reached, the case may go to trial. All parties to the case including the prosecution witnesses and defense witnesses will be subpoenaed (summoned) in advance to testify before a Judge, or a Judge and jury. Witnesses are excluded from the courtroom until they are finished testifying. The argument for this rule is to ensure that a witness isn't influenced by the testimony of another witness. As the victim, you have the right to be present throughout the trial.

Once the jury is selected and sworn, the prosecution and the defense make opening statement to the jury to explain the case. The Deputy County Attorney then presents the case against the defendant. It is the responsibility of the State to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a crime was committed and the defendant is guilty of committing the crime. To meet this burden of proof, the Deputy County Attorney presents evidence and calls witnesses to testify. Witnesses are required to testify under oath and may be cross-examined by the defense attorney.

After the prosecutor presents the case against the defendant, the defense has an opportunity to present its evidence. On advice of counsel, the defendant may or may not testify. As is the case with the prosecution witnesses, defense witnesses are subject to cross-examination by the prosecutor.

Following the defense's case, rebuttal witnesses may be called by the prosecutor to discredit statements and facts presented by the defense. At the end of the trial, attorneys from the prosecution and defense make their final arguments to the Judge or the jury. The Judge instructs the jury in matters of law as applied to the case about the duty of the jury.

The prosecution must prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt". Since a unanimous verdict is required by law, a jury that is unable to reach agreement on a verdict is declared "hung" by the Judge. The State may then request that the case be retried within sixty (60) days. If the jury return a verdict of "not guilty", it means that, in the jury's opinion, the State failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant is released. If this occurs, the State cannot appeal the jury's verdict and the matter cannot be retried. If the jury returns a verdict of "guilty", the Judge sets a sentencing date.


If the defendant pleads guilty, or if the defendant is found guilty, the Judge will set a date for the defendant to be sentenced. In felony case sentencing will generally be held within thirty (30) days. In the meantime, the court will request a Pre-Sentence Report on the defendant from the County Probation Department only for felony cases.

This report discusses the defendant's life and any other crimes he/she may have committed and will contain a recommendation for a specific sentence. The Probation Officer will contact the victim(s) as part of the investigation. The victim may also submit a written statement to the Judge through the Probation Officer. This statement may contain the victim's request for restitution (repayment of monetary losses suffered by the victim). In some situations, when either the Deputy County Attorney or the defense attorney have strong feelings about the recommended sentence, testimony especially relevant to the sentence, may be heard at a special sentencing hearing. If you are the victim of a felony, you are allowed to make a statement to the Judge at the time of sentencing.

Arizona law requires the Judge to order the defendant to pay restitution if the victim has suffered a monetary loss directly related to the crime. Restitution will be paid as a condition of probation or parole. Restitution payments are paid to the Clerk of the Court, who then mails the payments to the victim.

Probation, Prison, Parole or Community Supervision

If the defendant is placed on probation, he/she will be under many restrictions of conduct and travel. Any inappropriate action by a defendant placed on probation, including unauthorized contact with victims and witnesses, should be reported to the County Adult Probation Office.

On January 1, 1994 Arizona's sentencing structure (called the criminal code) changed. The revisions in the criminal code are to provide for "truth in sentencing". The changes in the law will ensure that defendants who are sentenced to the Department of Corrections will serve the majority of the prison term ordered by the Judge. Many of the early release mechanisms allowed for inmates sentenced for crimes that occurred prior to January 1, 1994 will not be allowed. If the sentencing Judge orders a defendant to serve a prison sentence, the defendant must serve at least 85% of the sentence imposed. At the time of sentence, the Judge will also order the defendant to serve a term of community supervision following the prison term. The term of community supervision will be equal to 15% of the total prison term. During the time the offender is being supervised in the community, the offender will report to a parole officer and must abide by certain restrictions on his/her activities. If the offender violates the terms of the community supervision, he/she may be ordered by the Judge to serve the remainder of the term of community supervision in prison.

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency (formerly the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles), a separate state agency from the Arizona Department of Corrections, is the agency that determines if the inmate is to be released from prison on parole. If he/she is released on parole, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Parole Division, is responsible for supervising him/her, and they should be contacted if any problems occur.

As a victim, you have the right to be notified of a parole hearing by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, you have the right to be heard at any parole hearing. You also have the right to be informed by the Arizona Department of Corrections, on request, when the inmate is released from prison. The Arizona Department of Corrections will notify you if the inmate escapes, even if you did not request this information.


After a defendant has been convicted of a crime, he/she has the right to appeal his/her conviction and/or sentence. An appeal is a formal request from the defendant and/or the defendant's attorney asking for an appellate court to review the case to determine if all of the defendant's rights were observed and that the procedures and laws were followed. Depending on the type of appeal, either the County Attorney's Office or the Arizona Attorney General's Office will handle the appeal on behalf of the State. Cases are reviewed on appeal in writing. In some cases oral arguments of the attorneys are heard by the court. The testimony of victims and witnesses is not allowed.

If you would like to be notified of any appeals of a felony conviction to a higher court, you may contact the Arizona Attorney General's Office Victim Rights and Witness Assistance Program at 602-542-49ll or 1-800-458-4911 (toll free within Arizona). The Arizona Attorney General's Office victim Witness Assistance Program will then notify you of the status and outcome of any appeal to a higher court.


This is a very simplified explanation of how the Criminal Justice System operates. It may not explain how a particular case will be handled. Further information may be obtained by calling the Victim Witness Division 602-506-8522 (Maricopa County).

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