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Your Trenton Criminal Case: The Basics

Last updated: November 25, 2013

You got the phone call that every parent dreads: your son has been arrested. He and his buddies were watching football at Wildflowers Too on Route 156 and a prior patron had accidently left his Visa card on the table. After too many shots of tequila, they decided to take the card and go on a "shopping spree." They made their way over to Quakerbridge Mall and did a fair amount of damage until the last fateful swipe of the card at GameStop where the clerk got an error message, called the bank, and then contacted the authorities.

You know your son is a good kid, so why did he have such bad judgment tonight? You need to help him. But what do you do? What can you expect? Here is some basic information to help you navigate when you or a loved one is involved in a criminal case in Trenton.

Key Players You May Encounter

One of the first organizations you will probably encounter is the Trenton Police Department. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, the case may be prosecuted by a district attorney from the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office, likely at the Mercer County Courthouse and, depending on financial circumstances, may be defended by the Public Defender.

Or, the matter may be heard at the Trenton Municipal Court, in which case the Municipal Prosecutor will likely be involved. Finally, there is the possibility of imprisonment in the Mercer County Correction Center or even within the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

Classification of Offenses

The way an offense is classified often has a number of implications, including what penalty is associated and which court prosecutes.

Unlike most states, New Jersey does not classify the more serious offenses as "felonies" and the lesser ones as "misdemeanors." Instead, under N.J. Stat. 2C:1-4, offenses are divided into "crimes" (designated as being first, second, third or fourth degree) and "disorderly person offenses."

"Crimes" are offenses for which you can be imprisoned for more than 6 months, and the degree denotes how serious -- so a first-degree crime is more serious than a second degree and has a more severe penalty attached. For example, a first-degree crime has a prison term of 10-20 years whereas a second-degree crime has a 5-10 year sentence.

Under New Jersey law, a "disorderly person offense" is not a crime and has no attached right to grand jury indictment or jury trial. A criminal case, however, is presented to a grand jury for indictment.

Generally, crimes are prosecuted in New Jersey superior courts and offenses are prosecuted in municipal courts.

Booking and Bail

Following the arrest, the accused will usually be taken into police custody and "booked." Booking is the process by which your personal information and the charges against you are officially entered into the system. Usually, pictures and fingerprints will be taken and you will likely be physically searched.

The next thing on the agenda is typically getting out of there as quickly as possible. This is where bail comes into play. Bail is essentially a promise made with money (or other collateral) to show up at the next court hearing. Sometimes release is based on a person's "own recognizance" which means that you simply sign a promise to return to court and no money is required to guarantee your future appearance.

Court Hearings and Process

Depending on the specifics of your case, the criminal justice process can follow a number of paths. Here is a useful overview from the New Jersey Courts, which outlines the process from intake to post-conviction motions.

Before a criminal case is presented to a grand jury for an indictment, a variety of things may happen. For example, if there is not enough evidence to prosecute the original charges, the charges may be "downgraded" and the case may be sent back ("remanded") to the municipal court and handled as a disorderly persons offense. Or the case might be resolved by a plea bargain with the prosecutor in which, in exchange for your pleading guilty, you are given a lesser sentence or certain charges are dismissed.

New Jersey also has a pre-trial intervention program, which allows some first-time adult offenders to avoid prosecution and conviction through participation in the rehabilitative program.

If your case does proceed toward trial, you will likely have pre-trial hearings in which your attorney (or you, if you are representing yourself) will try to define and limit the evidence that will be presented at trial. Thereafter, you will proceed to trial and, if convicted, to sentencing, which can mean incarceration, probation, fines, or other punishment.

Attorneys

A criminal conviction is a serious matter and can continue to have a significant impact on your life even after the sentence is completed. It is often recommended that a defendant retain a skilled attorney to represent their interests and to present the best defenses possible. For more information on criminal defense strategies and what to expect from an attorney, check out FindLaw's section on Using A Criminal Lawyer.