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Criminal Justice System: How It Works

The criminal justice process is complex, and often can be confusing to persons not familiar with criminal law.  This arrest-to-sentence guide and legal glossary are designed to explain and clarify the criminal justice process in New York County.

New York State Supreme Court

What happens after a Grand Jury votes an indictment?

Once a defendant has been indicted for a felony charge and the indictment has been filed, he or she is arraigned on the indictment in Supreme Court. Criminal Court no longer has jurisdiction over a defendant once an indictment has been filed.

At Supreme Court arraignment, the prosecutor gives the defendant a copy of the indictment and the Voluntary Disclosure Form, which includes information about the case, such as the date, time and place of the crime, and of the arrest.  The defendant is also informed about the substance of his statements and of his identification.  The defendant then enters a plea of guilty or not guilty to the indictment.  Bail may be reviewed and different conditions may be set.

Can a defendant plead guilty to a felony charge at Supreme Court Arraignment?

Yes. The majority of cases do not go to trial.  The defendant can plead to all of the charges in the indictment, or to fewer or lesser charges offered by the Assistant District Attorney.  Unless a sentence is negotiated as part of a plea agreement, the judge will determine the defendant's sentence based on the facts of the case, the defendant’s prior criminal history, and the laws governing permissible sentences.

What happens if a defendant pleads not guilty at Supreme Court Arraignment?

After a Grand Jury indictment has been voted and the defendant has been arraigned in Supreme Court, his case does not go straight to trial.  Instead, the case is adjourned to a Supreme Court Calendar Part.  In the Supreme Court Calendar Part, attorneys file motions to address a number of legal issues and defendants can plead guilty.

Numerous legal motions and court hearings can occur before a trial in both Criminal Court and Supreme Court, some of which are described below.

  • Discovery: Prior to trial, the defendant presents motions to the court to obtain information and documents and to examine the physical evidence.  The defendant is entitled to a copy of his statement and, if applicable, to those of co-defendants being tried jointly.  This includes any statements made before a Grand Jury.  Photographs, drawings, scientific reports, or evidence seized from the defendant must also be made available.
  • Motions to Dismiss: The defendant can move to dismiss the complaint or indictment as being technically defective, for not being supported by sufficient evidence, in the interest of justice, or because he was denied a speedy trial.
  • Motions to Suppress Evidence: Before trial, the defendant can move to prohibit the introduction of evidence at trial on the grounds that it was unlawfully or improperly obtained. Suppression motions most commonly seek to prohibit the introduction of identifications, evidence seized from the defendant, and the defendant's statements.
  • Admissibility of Identification Evidence:  Identification evidence, for example a line-up, is examined during a Wade hearing.  At issue is whether the police conduct during the identification procedure was proper.  If the judge finds that the police acted improperly, he can decide if the witness' "independent basis" for the identification is strong enough to withstand the pressures of police impropriety.  If the independent basis for the identification is weak or non-existent, the witness is not permitted to identify the defendant at trial.
  • Admissibility of Statements Made by the Defendant: Statement or admission evidence is litigated in a Huntley hearing.  The issues include whether the defendant was given his Miranda warnings, whether those warnings were complete, and whether his decision to confess to the police was knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.
  • Admissibility of Physical Evidence Seized from the Defendant: The admissibility of physical evidence seized from the defendant is litigated in a Mapp hearing.  The main question is whether certain physical evidence seized from the defendant can be introduced at trial.  Issues include an officer's probable cause to arrest the defendant, the propriety of his stop or frisk of the defendant, and the pertinent details surrounding the seizure of the evidence.
  • Sandoval: A Sandoval motion is made just before the trial begins.  In such a motion, the defendant seeks to prevent the ADA from cross-examining him on any prior convictions or bad acts should the defendant choose to testify at trial.