Criminal Justice Process

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In Maryland, the State's Attorney handles only criminal cases. Civil cases are handled on the county level by the Office of Law, and on the state level by the Office of the Attorney General. Criminal charges are divided into two general types - felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies are serious crimes that may be punished by a year or more imprisonment or death. A misdemeanor is a less serious crime and is punishable a fine or incarceration usually in a local jail for less than one year. State laws may specifically label a crime a felony or specify that the term of punishment for the crime could be more than one year.

Some crimes may be considered either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the nature of the criminal conduct. For example, an assault that results in severe injury to the victim is usually considered to be felony, but an assault (simple assault) that causes no lasting injury may be considered a misdemeanor.

The police investigate a crime and make an arrest based on the result of their investigation (probable cause). In Maryland, a citizen can file misdemeanor criminal charges against another citizen by going to a Commissioner in the District Court. Usually, in the case where one citizen files charges against another, a criminal summons is issued by the District Court. Criminal cases are brought by the State even if the case was filed as a citizen complaint. The case will be named the State v. ____, where the defendant's name is filled in the blank.

Though the State's Attorney is the prosecutor in these proceedings, he has certain obligations to the defendant as well as to the state. For example, if SAO has evidence that may show the defendant is innocent or that someone else may have committed the crime, it is obligated to turn that evidence over to the defendant's attorney. If the defense attorney has evidence that tends to show the client is guilty, the defense attorney is NOT obliged to turn that evidence over to us. Also, the prosecution is ethically bound to dismiss a case if it does not feel there is sufficient evidence to prove a person guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The court proceedings in a criminal case begin when a person (the defendant) is charged with a crime. In both a police arrest or a citizen filed charge, the defendant (or their defense attorney) will go to arraignment in District Court. At the arraignment, the Judge reads the charges to the defendant. The Judge will ask if the defendant has an attorney or needs the help of a court appointed attorney. The Judge will ask the defendant to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The Judge may set bail if the defendant is considered a flight risk or poses a danger to the society. Finally, the Judge announces the dates of future proceedings.

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