The Criminal Justice Process

Criminal Process Chart

Q. What must happen prior to an arrest?
A. Before someone can be arrested, the police must have evidence showing that there is probable cause that the accused committed or took part in committing a crime, as defined by the statutes of the State of New Jersey or the federal government. This evidence can come from a citizen or a police officer who witnessed the crime (or was a victim of it), or from other indications that a crime was committed by the accused. Since there are many types of crimes, there are many different ways that probable cause is established. Some crimes require extensive investigation, and others can be easily proven. The police will prepare an incident report of any indication of crime, whether an arrest was made or not. If a complaint was filed prior to arrest and charges an indictable offense (as opposed to a disorderly persons charge), a court can issue an arrest warrant allowing any police officer to arrest the accused. Again, the court must have probable cause prior to issuing the warrant.

Q. When and how is a complaint filed?
A. A complaint can be initiated by a police officer or any citizen. Most complaints are issued by the police. Complaints are filed in municipal court. There are two types of complaints, warrant complaints (generally for serious crimes) and summons complaints (generally for disorderly persons offenses). A warrant complaint, once signed by a judge, allows any police officer to arrest the accused. A summons complaint orders the person to appear in court, but does not in itself justify arrest.

Q. Are defendants released prior to trial?
A. After a person is arrested, they make an initial appearance in court. They are informed of the charges, and the judge decides if the defendant can be released. The judge will consider public safety and the probability that the defendant will remain available for all upcoming proceedings. The judge can release the accused on personal recognizance, or set bail as a condition of release.

Q. What is bail?
A. Persons charged on a warrant can be admitted to bail. Bail is the posting of something of value to permit the release of a suspect from jail designed to assure future appearance at all stages of the criminal process. If at any point the suspect fails to appear as required the bail is forfeited to the state and when apprehended the person is sent to jail. The accused usually purchases a bail bond to post.

Q. What happens after a criminal complaint is filed?
A. Once a complaint is filed it will be forwarded to either the County Prosecutor’s Office or the municipal court. All complaints involving serious crimes or a combination of serious crimes and disorderly persons offenses will be forwarded to the County Prosecutor’s Office for review. Criminal complaints involving only disorderly persons offenses will be forwarded to the municipal court. The municipal court will advise the complainant and defendant of the hearing date. The court may issue a summons or a warrant followed by bail, depending upon the circumstances of the case, as to insure the defendant’s knowledge of the complaint and availability for all following proceedings.

When a criminal complaint involving a serious crime or a combination of crimes and disorderly persons offenses is forwarded to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, where the case will be screened. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office reviews the complaint, obtains the relevant police reports, contacts the complainant or victim and/or the investigating officer, and performs any additional investigation as necessary. After such review, the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office will determine the appropriate course of action.

The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office has broad discretion to determine the appropriate disposition for a complaint. The Prosecutor’s office may handle a criminal complaint in several different ways. The complaint may be administratively dismissed, remanded to municipal court, or prosecuted in Superior Court.

Administrative Dismissal: A complaint may be administratively dismissed for several reasons, mainly because there is insufficient evidence to proceed. In some instances, a complaint is dismissed at the request of the victim. However, a victim’s request to dismiss a complaint is not always honored. Once a criminal complaint is signed, the complaint is prosecuted on behalf of the State of New Jersey, not the individual who signed the complaint. When deciding whether to dismiss a complaint, several factors are considered including, but not limited to, the following: (1) the nature and extent of the defendant’s prior criminal history; (2) the severity of the crime; and (3) whether the defendant has other pending charges.

Municipal Remand: A complaint is remanded to municipal court when the Prosecutor’s Office determines that the complaint can be adequately dealt with in municipal court. When a complaint is remanded to the municipal court, the original charge is amended to a disorderly persons offense and the complaint is returned to the municipal court. All further proceedings are handled in municipal court. Once a case is remanded to municipal court, the municipal prosecutor generally handles the complaint. However, in certain instances, a disorderly persons offense is retained by the Prosecutor’s Office and is heard in Special Remand Court, which is like a municipal court but can hear cases from throughout the County.

Complaint Prosecuted At The County Level: If a criminal complaint is not administratively dismissed or remanded to the municipal court, the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the complaint in Superior Court. When the Prosecutor’s Office decides to prosecute the complaint in Superior Court, the case may be considered for resolution through a plea agreement or pre-trial intervention. If the defendant rejects the plea offer or is not appropriate for intervention at this stage, the case proceeds to Grand Jury. If an early plea offer is accepted, the Pre-Indictment Disposition Court will consider the plea and arrange for sentencing.

Grand Jury: The Federal and State Constitutions guarantee every individual charged with a crime the right to have his/her matter reviewed by an independent body called a Grand Jury. A person charged with a disorderly persons or motor vehicle offense does not have a right to have the case presented to a Grand Jury. In certain instances, where an investigation indicates that a crime may have been committed but no complaint has yet been filed, the case can be referred by the Prosecutor directly to the Grand Jury. The Grand Jury hears evidence regarding the criminal matter and determines if there is probable cause for the case to proceed further. If the Grand Jury finds that there is sufficient evidence for the case to proceed further, the person charged with the crime is “indicted”. If there is not sufficient evidence, the case is dismissed which is known as a “no bill.”

Grand Jury proceedings are confidential. The Grand Jury meets in closed sessions and all evidence collected by them is kept secret unless and until a Superior Court Judge orders otherwise. The only individuals permitted in the room during a Grand Jury session are the grand jurors, the prosecutor, the witness and the court reporter. Neither a judge nor a defense attorney is present during the proceeding. Usually, the defendant does not testify at Grand Jury. The defendant is also not present during another witness’ testimony.

Arraignment: After a defendant has been indicted by the Grand Jury, the defendant must appear in court for an arraignment conference. At the arraignment conference, the defendant formally enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the case is scheduled for sentencing. Following arraignment, a Pre-Disposition Conference is held, where the State may make a plea offer.

Once the case proceeds to Superior Court, the case can be resolved by placing the defendant into the Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) program, through a plea agreement or by trial.

Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) Program: PTI is a one time opportunity for defendants who have no prior criminal history. Once a defendant has had the benefit of PTI in New Jersey or any other State, the defendant is not eligible for PTI. PTI is an agreement between the State and defendant. The Probation Department supervises the PTI defendant. The defendant must pay an application fee. As part of the PTI agreement, a defendant may have to pay fines and restitution, perform community service, and depending on the facts of the case, obtain counseling, forfeit weapons, or have no contact with specific individuals. If the defendant successfully completes PTI, he will have no criminal record of that charge. If the defendant fails to comply with the conditions of PTI, he is terminated from PTI and his case is put on the trial list. The defendant can then plead guilty or proceed to trial.

Trial: When a case proceeds to trial, the State must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A petit jury consisting of twelve jurors decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. A guilty or not guilty verdict must be unanimous. If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict, there is a mistrial. If there is a mistrial, the defendant can be retried before a different jury.

Appeal: The defendant or the State may appeal the trial court’s interpretation of the law in regard to the procedures used at trial or in the legal interpretation of the evidence presented. Findings of fact by a judge or jury generally may not be reviewed. An appellate court may order a new trial or may overturn a guilty verdict if it finds that the trial court misapplied the law.

Q. What courts handle criminal cases?
A. Municipal courts hear and decide cases involving disorderly persons offenses. There are no jury trials in municipal court. The judge decides if someone has broken the law, and imposes fines of up to $1,000 and / or imprisonment for up to 6 months. Municipal courts can also present charges and set bail for serious crimes. However, the Superior Court, Criminal Division handles the trial in every case where an adult has been accused of committing a serious crime. In such a case, the accused has a right to a jury trial. Crimes committed by persons under 18 years of age are considered acts of juvenile delinquency. Such cases are usually heard and decided in the Family Division of Superior Court, although very serious offenses can be treated by the Criminal Division as if the defendant were an adult. Appeals from municipal court decisions are heard in the Criminal Division, and appeals from trials held in the Criminal Division are made to the Superior Court Appellate Division. Final appeals can be taken to the New Jersey Supreme Court if a constitutional issue is involved or if there was a split decision in the Appellate Division.