STATE JUDICIAL SYSTEM
When any individual is charged with a crime that is punishable by incarceration, that individual has an absolute right to a trial by jury and the State has the burden of proof to prove that individual guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The following information is a general summary of the State judicial system to help you better understand your legal situation.
All State prosecuted criminal cases, with the exception of two situations, i.e., a presentment and/or a sealed indictment, begin at a General Sessions Court level.
General Sessions Court is a court of limited jurisdiction having judicial authority over misdemeanor crimes. Therefore, for your convenience, it will be necessary to divide this discussion into those individuals charged with misdemeanor crimes and those individuals charged with felony crimes.
For those individuals who are charged with misdemeanor crimes, this means that they have been charged with a crime that falls within a category of an A misdemeanor, B misdemeanor, and/or C misdemeanor or a combination thereof.
In these cases, the General Sessions Court has the authority to reach a disposition if the defendant so chooses.
Please keep in mind, as I stated above, that any individual who is charged with a crime which punishment includes the possibility of incarceration, is entitled to a trial by jury in Criminal Court.
However, for the purposes of this illustration, we will discuss how a case can be resolved in General Sessions Court prior to reaching Criminal Court. In the preceding discussion concerning individuals charged with felonies, it will show how a felony, as well as a misdemeanor, can precede into Criminal Court.
Once an individual has been arraigned and placed on the docket in General Sessions Court, there are three possible scenarios that may occur.
First, the State may elect to dismiss the charges brought against an individual. Secondly, the State Prosecutor and the Defendant may reach an agreed upon disposition whereby some type of plea agreement is entered into. Third, the Defendant may elect to have a preliminary hearing (see discussion of Preliminary hearing in felony outline).
As stated in the prior discussion, General Sessions Court is a court of limited jurisdiction and holds jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes only. Therefore, when an individual is charged with a felony crime, the General Sessions is limited in its power in handling these matters. Again, there are three possible scenarios that may occur when an individual is charged with a felony and is at the General Sessions Court level.
First, the State Prosecutor may elect to dismiss the charges. Secondly, the State can reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor charge and afford the General Sessions Court the power to reach disposition in that matter. Third, a preliminary hearing can occur.
It is important for an individual to understand that a preliminary hearing is not to find guilt or innocence. It is a hearing solely for the purpose of the General Sessions Court Judge to make a determination whether the State can meet the burden of probable cause in order to forward this matter to the Grand Jury.
At this hearing, the burden of proof is placed upon the State and its prosecutors to offer the Court enough testimony and/or evidence to show there is merely probable cause that the Defendant has committed such crime. In other words, that it is more likely than not that the Defendant has committed a crime.
The most beneficial thing about a preliminary hearing is that once the State puts a witness on the stand to make probable cause, that witness then becomes subject to cross examination by the defense attorney. This is a great opportunity for defense attorneys to gather information at the early stages of a case.
In most instances, it is not appropriate for the defendant to take the stand at the preliminary hearing stage simply for the fact that he or she becomes subject to cross examination by the State’s prosecutors. Therefore, these hearings are usually very short in nature due to the fact that the State does not want to put on any more proof than they have to meet probable cause.
Once, a Judge has heard the evidence offered by the State, if he or she finds probable cause that a crime has been committed, they will then bind this matter over to the Grand Jury.
A Grand Jury is thirteen (13) people from the community who are chosen from the county wide juror pool who meet in secret and hear cases presented to them by the State. The main thing to note in this hearing is that it is generally the exact same hearing that is held at the General Sessions Court preliminary hearing, however the only difference being the accused and/or their attorneys are not allowed to be present and the only evidence that is heard by the Grand Jury is that evidence that is provided by the State of Tennessee, its witnesses, and their prosecutors.
Again, this hearing is a probable cause hearing and the burden of proof is only held to the standard that a crime has more likely than not been committed by the defendant. Again, please note that this is not a hearing to find guilt or innocence, however it is simply a probable cause hearing which sets the standard burden of proof required by the State and their prosecutors very low. Therefore, as you can well see, it is a very easy task for the State and their prosecutors to make probable cause at this hearing.
At these Grand Jury proceedings, the defendant nor his or her attorney are allowed to be present and only the State Prosecutor and their witnesses are present. Therefore, as you can well see, it is very easy for the State to make probable cause at this hearing.
If and when probable cause is reached by the State, the Grand Jury will return what is called a true bill and an indictment will be issued against the Defendant.
Once an indictment is returned against an individual for a crime, the process basically begins all over again.
Once an indictment is returned against an individual that individual will be notified and an arraignment date will be set. At the arraignment date, the Court will make sure the defendant has an attorney and understands the charges against him or her. Once this is established, the Court will set a trial date and the criminal prosecution will begin.
At the Criminal Court, the burden of proof which must be met by the State to convict an individual of a crime, takes an enormous turn and requires that for an individual to be found guilty of a crime, a jury of twelve individuals must find that defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This part of the criminal proceedings are generally what most individuals have seen all their lives on T.V., movies, etc.
A defendant who has reached this stage of the Judicial System will be provided an opportunity to call witnesses on their own behalf, have witnesses which are called on behalf of the State cross examined by the defendant’s attorney and if he or she so chooses, they may take the stand on their own behalf.
Again, as I stated earlier, once this process is completed, a jury will make a determination of guilt or innocence based on whether the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she has committed the crime as charged. If the defendant is found guilty of the crime or crimes charged, then the next stage of the proceedings, will be a sentencing hearing. This hearing will be conducted on a date after the issue of guilt has been decided by the Jury and will be conducted by the Judge alone. It is the sole discretion of the presiding Judge as to the issue of what sentence a convicted defendant will receive as a result of his crime.