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Tennessee Criminal Law

What Does It Mean To Be Charged With A Crime?

When you are charged with a crime, someone has accused you of breaking the law.

Criminal charges can start three different ways:

  • You can be arrested at the scene of the alleged crime by the police;
  • You can be arrested later based on a warrant issued after someone, either private citizen or police officer, has sworn before a judge that you have committed a crime; or
  • You can be arrested based on an indictment from the grand jury. This "direct presentment" is the result from an investigation through the District Attorney's office.

Regardless of how the charges begin, there must be enough evidence that, an average person, once they hear the facts, would believe that there is a reasonable chance that you have committed a crime. This is called "probable cause."

What Is General Sessions Court?

In criminal matters, general sessions court is where most cases begin. Anyone who was arrested at the scene of a crime or was arrested based on someone's sworn statement will come to this court first.

There is never a jury for cases in general sessions court. General sessions court is not "a court of record." This means that when you appeal a trial from this court, you start over fresh with a new trial in criminal court. There is no court reporter, but everything is audio taped.

Most criminal cases in general sessions court are not set for trial but instead are set for preliminary hearings.

The law treats felony and misdemeanor cases differently in general sessions court.

What Can Happen To A Misdemeanor Case In General Sessions Court?

General sessions judges can "try" (as in have a trial) cases, if they are misdemeanors, but only if the defendant and district attorney agree to "waive a jury trial." If the case is tried in general sessions court, then the guilt of the defendant is decided at this level and the case does not continue on to the grand jury. The result is that the defendant waives his right to have his case heard by the Grand Jury.

Defendants can plead guilty to misdemeanor charges in general sessions courts and judges can sentence people on these charges.

The district attorney can always dismiss charges.

The judge can have a preliminary hearing on misdemeanor charges in general sessions court. But, most misdemeanor cases are disposed of (there is a trial, guilty plea, or they are dropped) in general sessions court unless they are related to felony charges.

What Can Happen To A Felony Case In General Sessions Court?

You cannot have a trial or plead guilty to felony charges in general sessions court. Most felony cases are set for a preliminary hearing. The district attorney dismisses a small number.

It is possible to reach a plea agreement with the district attorney in general session court and "by-pass" the grand jury. This is called a "criminal information." Pleading guilty to a "criminal information" waves several important rights of the defendant (the right to a preliminary hearing and the right to a grand jury). This is not usually a good idea, but there are a few times when it can benefit the defendant.

This is one example of when it is a good idea to plead guilty to a criminal information. When a defendant cannot make his bond he must wait in jail from the time the case is bound over to the grand jury and the time it is transferred to criminal court. This wait will be somewhere between four and six months. If a defendant is offered a jail sentence of less than four months then is can be a good idea to plead guilty to a criminal information.

A criminal information is a three-part process and takes about a month. The first step is for the defendant to waive his preliminary hearing in general session court and to sign a written agreement stating what crimes he is pleading guilty to and what the sentence will be for the crimes. The second step is for the district attorney to draft a formal statement of the charges, called an information. This information takes the place of the grand jury indictment.

The third step is for the defendant to go to criminal court. If the judge agrees with the plea-bargain, then the defendant can plead guilty to the charges and receive his sentence from the judge.

What Is A Preliminary Hearing?

A preliminary hearing, or probable-cause hearing, is the court hearing where the state must prove that it has "probable cause" to believe that you have committed a crime. These hearings take place in the general sessions courts. In Davidson County, this means that they will usually be held on the third floor of the courthouse or in the small courtroom at the Criminal Justice Center. Occasionally, general sessions court for domestic cases (husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend, parent/child) will be held in the Ben West Building.

At the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to believe that there is a "reasonable" chance you have committed a crime. This is a different type of hearing than a trial, where the judge is deciding whether you are guilty of a crime. It is much easier to find that there is a chance you committed a crime so the "standard of proof" is very low.

If the judge decides that there is a chance you have committed a crime, your case will be "bound over" to the grand jury. If the judge decides that there is not enough evidence to believe that you may have committed a crime the case is dismissed. If the case is dismissed at this point, the district attorney can still take your case to the grand jury. A dismissal of your case at this stage does not mean your case has ended. It might still come back up. If it does, you will be notified that there is an indictment against you. You may be arrested on the indictment and have to pay a new bond.

What Is An Arraignment?

If you have been charged with a crime, your first appearance in court before a judge is usually your arraignment. This is when your charges are read and you enter your first plea.

Arraignments in criminal court are usually held on Wednesday mornings. When it is your turn to be arraigned, your name will be called. If you have hired an attorney, your attorney will answer for you. You and your attorney will stand up before the judge. The judge will give your attorney a copy of your "indictment" from the grand jury and a schedule of your next few court appearances. Your attorney will enter a "not guilty" plea for you. He will also tell the judge your birth date and social security number. The arraignment takes about five minuets.

If you cannot afford an attorney, you must fill out an "affidavit of indigency." Even if you were appointed an attorney (public defender or private) in general sessions court, you must be re-appointed an attorney in criminal court. The public defender's office is always in court, but you must call your private attorney to tell him about the arraignment date.


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