How the justice court system works in Choctaw County

From press & staff reports

With Circuit Court held in February in Choctaw County, some may think of the tensions between law enforcement and the general public that have been in the national spotlight recently. Yet, the criminal justice system allows Americans the freedom to live their lives knowing that there is a system in effect that protects their well-being and safety.

As some areas of the country deals with conflicts of law enforcement and their interactions with the public, it is important for all citizens to understand how the justice system works. Out of this knowledge may come an understanding, which can lead to a resolution of these tensions.

The criminal justice system is comprised of three major institutions which process a case from inception, through trial, to punishment. A case begins with law enforcement, which investigates a crime and gathers evidence to identify and use against the presumed offender.

The criminal justice system is comprised of three major institutions which process a case from inception, through trial, to punishment. A case begins with law enforcement, which investigates a crime and gathers evidence to identify and use against the presumed offender.

This process may vary depending on the jurisdiction, the seriousness of the crime, or whether the accused offender is a juvenile or an adult. Not all cases will follow a certain set of steps, mainly because all crimes vary in level of seriousness, as mentioned before.

Ackerman Police Chief Kevin Starks spoke of the process in general. “If someone comes to us and reports a crime, we will first gather what is considered evidence,” Starks said. “Most of the time this is just factual information that the victim reports to us. There is really not one set process because every situation will be different. In general you would have your initial report, your victim’s statement, and an open investigation. During the open investigation is where we will collect evidence, interview witnesses if available, as well as applying for and executing search warrants to obtain evidence. Forensic evidence may also be collected in certain situations.”

Law enforcement sometimes encounter resistance in obtaining arrest because of a lack of sustainable evidence, lack of witness support, as well as false statements from victims.

“After taking these steps and there is enough information to develop probable cause to obtain an arrest warrant, an arrest is then made,” Starks said. “The next step for us would be to testify in court. Our job basically concludes with the arrest of the offender.”

At this junction, the case continues with the court system, mainly prosecution and pre-trial being the early stages. The evidence collected by law enforcement is then submitted to a prosecutor, who then decides whether to file written charges or release the accused offender without pursuing prosecution.

If the prosecution does choose to file charges, the accused offender would make their first court appearance. At this court appearance, the accused offender is informed of the charges and his/her rights.

At this point, it is in the hands of the judge to decide whether there is enough evidence to hold the accused offender or release them. If the defendant does not have an attorney, the court can appoint one or begin the process of assigning a public defender to represent the accused offender.
During the accused offender’s first court appearance the judge may decide to hold them in jail or release them on bail, bond, or on their own Recognizance” (this means the accused promises to return to court for any required proceedings and the judge does not impose bail because the accused appears not to be a flight risk). To be released on bail, accused offenders must submit cash or other valuables, such as property deeds, to the court as security to guarantee that the defendant will appear at the trial.

Accused offenders may pay bail with cash or bond (an amount put up by a bail bondsman who collects a non-refundable fee from the defendant to pay the bail). The judge will also consider such factors as drug use, residence, employment, and family ties in deciding whether to hold or release the accused.

In about one-half of the states in the country, the accused have the right to have their cases heard by a grand jury, which means that a jury of citizens must hear the evidence presented by the prosecutor and decide whether there is enough evidence to indict the accused of the crime.

If the grand jury decides there is enough evidence, the grand jury submits to the court an indictment, or written statement of the facts of the offense charged against the accused. In other cases, the accused may have to appear at a preliminary hearing in court, where the judge may hear evidence and the accused is formally indicted or released.

If the case is not heard by the grand jury, a preliminary hearing is held. A preliminary hearing is held in the lowest local court (municipal or police court), but only if the prosecutor has filed the charge without asking the Grand Jury for an indictment for the alleged crime. Such a hearing must be held within a few days after arraignment (presentation in court of the charges and the defendant’s right to plead guilty or not guilty).

Since neither side wants to reveal its trial strategy, the prosecution normally presents only enough evidence and testimony to show the probability of guilt, and defendants often put on no evidence at all at the preliminary hearing, unless there is a strong chance of getting the charges dismissed. If the judge finds sufficient evidence to try the defendant, the case is sent to the appropriate court (variously called superior, county, district, common pleas) for trial. If there is no such convincing evidence, the judge will dismiss the charges.

Next, the accused is brought before the judge to be informed of the charges and his or her rights. The defendant pleads guilty, not guilty, or no contest (accepts the penalty without admitting guilt). If the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, no trial is held, and the accused offender is sentenced then or later. If they plead not guilty, a date is set for the trial. If a plea agreement is negotiated, no trial is held.

The next phase of the court process is a called “adjudication” (or trial process). Sometimes a case may not reach this stage if a plea agreement is reached before trial.

The majority of cases are resolved by plea agreements rather than trials. A plea agreement means that the accused has agreed to plead guilty to one or more of the charges in exchange for one of the following: dismissal of one or more changes, a lesser degree of the charged offense, a recommendation for a lenient sentence, not recommending the maximum sentence, or making no recommendation. The law does not require prosecutors to inform victims about plea agreements or seek their approval.

If no plea agreement is reached, the case will go to one of two trial processes. Trials are held before a judge (bench trial) or judge and jury (jury trial), depending on the seriousness of the crime and other factors. The prosecutor and defense attorney present evidence and question witnesses. The judge or jury finds the accused guilty or not guilty on the original charges or lesser charges. Accused offenders found not guilty are usually released. If the verdict is guilty, the judge will set a date for sentencing.

If found guilty, the accused offender will then enter the post trial process of the court system. This now goes to the sentencing process. Victims are allowed to prepare for the judge (and perhaps to read at the sentencing hearing) a victim impact statement that explains how the crime affected them. In deciding on a sentence, the judge has a range of choices, depending on the crime. These choices include restitution (paying the victim for costs related to the crime), fines (paid to the court), probation, jail or prison, or the death penalty. In some cases, the defendant appeals the case, seeking either a new trial or to overturn or change the sentence.

Incarceration is one of the most common outcomes of criminal trials, especially in more serious cases. The convict is housed in either jail or prison. Jails are usually located in each county and are for less serious offenses. Jail terms usually do not exceed one year. Prison terms are usually for longer than a year and almost always involve serious felony offenses

If the accused does not receive jail time, they have the possibility of receiving probation or parole for their crimes. A judge may suspend a jail or prison sentence and instead place the offender on probation, usually under supervision in the community. Offenders who have served part of their sentences in jail or prison may-under certain conditions-be released on parole, under the supervision of the corrections system or the court. Offenders who violate the conditions of their probation or parole can be sent to jail or prison.