Complaints and Indictments
Felony cases begin either through the filing of a document with the court called a Complaint or through the finding of an Indictment. Both types of documents are prepared by the prosecutor's office.
A Complaint is a document which accuses the defendant of having committed a crime or crimes. It is usually signed by law enforcement personnel. However, they can also be signed by any other person who has knowledge of the facts surrounding the crime or crimes charged in the Complaint. This person is called a "complaining witness."
An Indictment is a document by which a grand jury accuses a person of having committed a crime or crimes. It is issued by the grand jury at the conclusion of a grand jury proceeding.
Nearly all cases in Nez Perce County are initiated through the Complaint process, rather than Grand Jury Indictments. This is because the Complaint process is faster, less burdensome, and far less costly to the taxpayers.
Summons and Arrest Warrants
Defendants can be compelled to appear in court either by serving the defendant with a summons or an arrest warrant. A summons is a document which is handed to the defendant by the Sheriff's Office. It commands the defendant to appear at court at a particular time and place.
Defendants can also be arrested and brought to court based on an arrest warrant. An arrest warrant is issued by a judge. It directs a peace officer to arrest the defendant and bring them to court. Arrest warrants can only be issued if the issuing judge has already been provided with evidence that establishes probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a crime.
Magistrate judges are required to give preference to the issuance of a summons over a warrant when they are asked to issue an arrest warrant. The factors the magistrate shall consider are set out in Idaho Criminal Rule 4.
Initial Appearance Before Magistrate
If the defendant has been charged through the filing of a Complaint, the defendant's first appearance in court is called an initial appearance. This hearing is held before a magistrate judge.
During the hearing, the defendant is informed of the charge or charges filed against them, the maximum possible penalties that the court could impose if the defendant pleads or is found guilty, and the defendant's constitutional rights. The court will also ask the defendant if they intend to hire their own attorney or if they need to have an attorney appointed to represent them. If a defendant does not have sufficient income to afford an attorney, i.e., the defendant is indigent, the court will appoint an attorney to represent the defendant. In cases where the defendant has been arrested, the court also discusses any bond that has already been set by the court or requested by the prosecution. The defendant is not asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at this stage of the proceeding. During the hearing, the magistrate will schedule a time for a hearing called a "preliminary hearing."
A preliminary hearing is a hearing in which the prosecution is required to produce witnesses and other evidence to establish probable cause that the defendant committed a crime. A failure to provide sufficient evidence will result in dismissal of the charge or charges. This hearing is essentially like a “mini-trial”. The magistrate is required to consider whether the prosecution has sufficient evidence by which a reasonable person could believe that the defendant committed the crime or crimes charged. The evidence does not have to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. At the preliminary hearing, the judge also does not weigh any defenses the defendant may have against the evidence which has been produced by the prosecution. The comparing of the evidence from both parties is left for trial.
The magistrate will dismiss any charge or charges in the Complaint which are not supported by sufficient evidence. If the prosecution produces sufficient evidence, the magistrate will direct the defendant to appear in District Court to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty to the charge or charges. The magistrate issues what is called an Order Binding Over finding that sufficient evidence was found. After the preliminary hearing, the prosecuting attorney is required to file a document called an Information with the District Court. This document is identical to the Complaint, but can only be signed by the prosecuting attorney.
The preliminary hearing serves the same purpose as a grand jury hearing. The only difference is that sixteen grand jurors make the decision about probable cause in a grand jury proceeding, while a single magistrate makes the decision about probable cause in a preliminary hearing.
Arraignment In District Court
Once an Indictment or Information has been filed, the defendant is required to appear in the District Court before a District Judge. The defendant's first appearance in District Court is called an arraignment. During the hearing, the defendant is informed of the charge or charges filed against them and the maximum possible penalties that the court could impose if the defendant pleads or is found guilty.
If the defendant expresses a desire to plead guilty at the arraignment, the judge sets the case for a change of plea hearing. At the change of plea hearing, the judge thoroughly explains to the defendant the rights and defenses he/she is giving up by pleading guilty. It is at this hearing where the defendant officially enters his/her plea of guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty at the arraignment, the court will set the dates for motions to be filed, a pretrial conference date, and a date for a jury trial.
The purpose of a pretrial conference is to bring the parties together to determine if they can reach a satisfactory resolution to the case. This is commonly known as plea bargaining. If the prosecution and the defendant reach an agreement, the defendant will enter a plea of guilty at the time of the pretrial conference or a time in the near future. If no resolution can be reached by the parties, the matter will proceed to trial at the time already scheduled or on a new date set by the court.
Trials are either "jury trials" or "court trials." A jury in a felony case consists of twelve jurors, although the parties can agree to have fewer jurors. In some cases, the parties may agree to have the case decided by a judge, rather than a jury. This is usually done because of the cost and time associated with conducting a jury trial - court trials being quicker and less expensive. Both the defendant and the prosecution have a constitutional right to a jury trial. Therefore, both parties must agree to waive a jury trial before the case can be heard as a court trial.
A sentencing hearing is the last regular hearing held before the court. Victims have a right to be present and/or to address the court at these hearings. The prosecution argues to the court what an appropriate sentence ought to be, as may the defendant. The prosecution and the defendant can call witnesses and introduce evidence to support their position about the appropriate sentence. The court will address the issue of jail time and/or any mandatory fine. When applicable, the court will also discuss the suspension of the defendant's driver's license, the restitution the defendant must pay to the victim, any probation terms, the type of judgment, reimbursement of court costs and public defender fees, etc.
In certain cases the court can place the defendant on probation. Felony probation is supervised by the Idaho Department of Corrections. Probation means that the court suspends the requirement that the defendant serve all or part of the sentence that was given, but he/she is required to do certain things in exchange for suspending the sentence. These things can include counseling, community service, random testing, restrictions on associating with certain people or going to certain businesses or locations, and/or random search and seizure of the defendant, of his/her residence and/or of his/her vehicle.
Retained Jurisdiction, also known as "a Rider"
The District Court has the option in felony cases to initially commit the defendant to the Department of Corrections, but retain the judge's ability to bring the defendant out of the prison system and place the defendant on probation. This is commonly referred to as "retained jurisdiction" or "a rider."
The sentencing judge is only allowed to retain jurisdiction for the first 180 days after the defendant has been committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections. When the judge retains his/her jurisdiction, the Department of Corrections will place the defendant in a special evaluation program. The purpose of the program is to assess the defendant's ability and potential to comply with the requirements of supervised probation. The programs are designed to be completed prior to the end of the 180-day period. At the conclusion of the evaluation period, the Department of Corrections generates a report which is forwarded to the sentencing judge. The report makes a recommendation to the judge to either place the defendant on probation or relinquish the court's jurisdiction impose the original sentence which the court initially suspended.