What are the stages of a criminal case in SC?
If you have never been charged with a crime before, an arrest and pending charges can be confusing, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying. Will you go to prison? Will you have a criminal record for the rest of your life? What can you do to make this situation better?
First, if you have been charged with a crime, call an experienced SC criminal defense lawyer immediately – your attorney will be able to answer your questions, let you know what to expect, and begin working on your defense.
Below, we will go over the basics of criminal procedure in SC’s courts, including:
- The stages of a criminal case if you are charged with a General Sessions-level offense,
- The stages of a criminal case if your charges are in the magistrate or municipal court, and
- The differences between criminal procedure in the lower courts and General Sessions Court.
Stages of a Criminal Case in General Sessions Court
Every case is different, and you need to seek advice from your criminal defense lawyer that is specific to your circumstances.
Although there are minor variations in courtroom procedures in different counties in SC, there are concrete stages to a criminal case that are the same or similar in most cases. These include:
In many cases, an arrest is made without an extensive investigation – an officer believes a crime has been committed, because they witnessed it or witnesses have reported it, and they make an arrest.
In other cases, law enforcement will investigate, interview witnesses, gather documents or video evidence, and then attempt to talk to their suspect to get them to confess (or to make inconsistent statements that will make their case stronger).
Do not give any statements to law enforcement – if you are asked to give an interview, call your criminal defense lawyer first.
In many cases, you will not have an opportunity to contact an attorney before you are arrested, although family and friends can make the call for you if possible.
When there is an investigation before the arrest, however, you may have advance notice of your arrest, and, in some cases, your attorney can arrange for you to turn yourself in (instead of police showing up at your home or job to make an arrest).
In most cases, you will get a bond hearing within 24 hours of your arrest. If you have already retained counsel, you may be more likely to be released on a personal recognizance (PR) bond or a reasonable surety bond.
For some more serious offenses (murder, for example), you might have to wait for a circuit court judge to set your bond. Your attorney can file a motion to set bond in the circuit court or a motion to reduce bond in appropriate cases.
Roll Call/ Docket Appearances
When you are released, you will be given two “roll call” dates. If you have an attorney, your attorney may be able to get you excused from one or both of these appearances. If your attorney has not confirmed that you are excused, however, you must appear or the solicitor will issue a bench warrant for your arrest.
In every General Sessions case, you are entitled to a preliminary hearing where a magistrate will determine whether there was probable cause for your arrest. At your bond hearing, you will be given a form you or your attorney can use to request a preliminary hearing – do this immediately so you do not miss the deadline.
Discovery and Investigation
Your attorney will immediately file a “discovery motion,” asking the prosecutor to provide all evidence that they intend to use against you and any exculpatory evidence.
Your attorney will also continue an independent investigation of your case, which could include consulting with expert witnesses, subpoenaing documents or testimony, interviewing witnesses, use of a private investigator, and filing motions to compel discovery that the prosecutor is withholding.
Your attorney (or the prosecutor) might file multiple motions in your case. In some cases, these motions will be scheduled for a hearing long before your trial (motions to compel discovery, for example), while other motions may not be heard until the day of trial (motions to suppress evidence, for example).
Unless you and your attorney know from the start that your case will be a trial, your attorney will negotiate with the prosecutor to 1) find the best plea offer they are willing to make, 2) get you into a pretrial diversion program that will result in dismissal, or 3) get your case dismissed before trial.
In most cases, the prosecutor will make a plea offer that you will either need to accept or reject and prepare for trial.
If your prosecutor makes a plea offer that you are willing to accept, you will need to appear before a circuit court judge, admit guilt, and be sentenced. Your sentence could be:
- Based on a recommendation from the prosecutor, although the court makes the final decision (most cases),
- Based solely on the court’s discretion, with no recommendation from the prosecutor, or
- Based on your attorney’s negotiations with the prosecutor, and the court must accept or reject those negotiations (sometimes called a negotiated plea).
When the prosecutor does not make a plea offer you can accept, or if your case was always a matter of dismissal or trial, your attorney and the prosecutor will pick 12 jurors who will hear the evidence and arguments in your case and decide whether you are guilty or not guilty.
Waiting for a trial can take some time – the prosecutor may put your case on the docket multiple times before it “catches” and goes forward.
If you are convicted, you have the right to appeal the guilty verdict to the SC Court of Appeals. You must file your Notice of Appeal within 10 days.
Post-Conviction Relief (PCR)
If your direct appeal is denied, or if there were no grounds for a direct appeal, you can still file a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief (PCR), which is usually based on allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel.
If your attorney made mistakes in your case, and if those mistakes could reasonably have affected the outcome, your case may be overturned, and you can be granted a new trial.
Stages of a Criminal Case in Magistrate or Municipal Court
For the most part, the stages of a criminal case in the magistrate or municipal court are the same as the stages of a criminal case in General Sessions Court as described above. There are some important differences, however.
Jury Trial Request
If you are charged in the magistrate or municipal court, you are not automatically given a jury trial – you have to request a jury trial in writing.
In some cases, your attorney might appear on your initial court date (found on your ticket or paperwork) to attempt to negotiate a reduced charge or dismissal. In other cases, your attorney will file the jury trial request well in advance of the initial court date. Once a jury trial has been requested, you no longer have an initial court date, and your next appearance will be at a roster meeting or pretrial conference.
Roster Meeting/ Pretrial Conference
In the magistrate and municipal courts, you do not get roll call dates. Instead, once you have requested a jury trial, your case will be scheduled for a roster meeting or pretrial conference.
At the roster meeting, your attorney will have a chance to negotiate with the prosecutor or officer, and, if your case has not been resolved, a trial date will be set.
Trials in magistrate or municipal court are smaller versions of trials in General Sessions Court. The procedure is the same, for the most part, but there are minor differences like you only get six jurors instead of 12.
You have the right to appeal a conviction in the magistrate or municipal court, but the appeal is filed in the Court of Common Pleas (the “civil side” of the circuit court – General Sessions is the “criminal side” of the circuit court) instead of the SC Court of Appeals. If you are unsuccessful in the circuit court, you can then appeal your case further to the Court of Appeals.
Criminal Defense Lawyers in Conway, SC
Attorney Johnny Gardner has over twenty years of trial experience defending misdemeanors and felonies in SC courtrooms, including General Sessions Court, magistrate courts, and municipal courts.