Explaining the New Jersey Criminal Law Process
What to expect after an arrest for a serious offense
If you’ve been arrested in New Jersey, it’s because a grand jury returned an indictment, a police officer on the scene determined there was probable cause or a citizen filed a criminal complaint. So what happens now? Under the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey law, you have a right to due process, which means there are standard procedures the authorities must follow. At the time of your arrest, you should have been advised that you had the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney present. To ensure your best chance of a favorable outcome, you must assert both of those rights.
An arrest can be disorienting and it's easy to say or do something against your interests. You're bound to have many questions to ask your attorney, so he should accompany you at every pivotal moment of the criminal process, including:
- First appearance and bail hearing
- Pre-indictment procedures and plea bargain negotiations
- Grand jury
- Pre-arraignment conference and arraignment
- Pre-sentence investigations, reports and sentencing
First appearance and bail hearing in New Jersey criminal cases
New Jersey law requires that bail be set 12 hours after a complaint is filed, so your first appearance happens shortly after you’ve been arrested or served with notice of a criminal complaint demanding that you appear in court. The court advises you of your rights and sets bail. It is important to have your attorney speak for you, so that you don’t inadvertently make a statement against your own interest, and argue for reasonable bail. Bail is set based on the probability that you will appear in court, so your demeanor during the hearing is vitally important.
Pre-indictment procedures and plea bargain negotiations
Even though you’ve been arrested, the People still must decide whether to pursue charges against you. The state performs a substance abuse evaluation to determine whether drug abuse played a role in events. Reasonable prospects of drug rehabilitation may influence the prosecutor to downgrade or drop charges. First-time nonviolent offenders can avoid prosecution by entering a Pre-Trial Intervention Program where they receive drug abuse and mental health counseling. During this time, your attorney can meet with the prosecutor to negotiate a favorable settlement or plea bargain. Your attorney cites weakness in the state’s case and circumstances in your favor. Since a plea bargain is an admission of guilt, you should only accept when your chances of winning an acquittal at trial are negligible.
Grand jury returns an indictment
For the state to proceed with serious charges, (felonies in other states, called “indictable crimes” in New Jersey), a grand jury must return a “true bill” of indictment. The prosecution presents its case in closed session to a panel of citizens. If a majority of the 23-member grand jury believes it is more likely than not that you committed the alleged crime, they vote to indict and the case goes forward in superior court. They may also choose to downgrade the offense to a “disorderly person” charge (a misdemeanor) and send the case to municipal court.
Pre-arraignment conference and arraignment
Within 21 days of the indictment, the prosecution holds a pre-arraignment conference and shares whatever evidence it has collected with the defense. Your attorney has an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence to the other side. From this point forward, the prosecution has a duty to disclose any evidence that may disprove its case against you. Within 50 days of the indictment, you are arraigned and the court formally notifies you of the charges. If your attorney has successfully negotiated a plea bargain, you can enter a guilty plea at this time according to those terms. If you plead not guilty, your attorney may continue plea negotiations even as the case moves toward trial. However, at a later pre-trial conference, a plea cut-off date is established, after which there can be no deals.
Trial in New Jersey superior court
A defendant has a constitutional right to a jury trial, but may wave that right in favor of a judge. Juries in New Jersey range from six to twelve persons. A jury of fewer than 12 must be unanimous in order to convict. If the jury finds you not guilty, you are free to go and cannot be indicted again on the same charges. If the jury cannot reach a decision, the court may declare a mistrial, and the prosecution must decide whether it intends to retry you. If the jury finds you guilty, the court sets a date for sentencing.
Pre-sentence investigations, reports and sentencing
The court’s criminal division case officers conduct a thorough investigation and present a report to the judge, which assesses the defendant’s background and the degree of harm done by the commission of the crime. The judge has some discretion in sentencing, though certain crimes have strict guidelines. If you have pled guilty in a plea bargain, the judge generally accepts the sentence the prosecution has recommended.
Contact an experienced and aggressive New Jersey criminal law firm
A criminal trial can be a harrowing experience. A skilled defense attorney can protect your rights and ensure you get every benefit of due process. For dedicated representation that will fight for you every step of the way, call The Anthony Pope Law Firm at 973.536.2346 or contact us online.