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Your Raleigh Criminal Case: The Basics

Last updated: September 30, 2013

You never thought this could happen. You've been arrested in Raleigh. You are likely scared and confused. Many questions are going through your mind. What is going to happen to me? Am I going to go to jail? Do I need a bail bonds? Don't I have "the right to remain silent?" Where is the courthouse? What is an arraignment?

Since arrests occur in so many different situations, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen. This article provides general information about the process in Raleigh, including what to expect from the criminal justice system in most cases if you are arrested in Wake County.

The Arrest

You've seen it on television. Perhaps a rerun of "Law and Order." A seasoned police officer is chasing a suspect down an alleyway, draws her gun and suddenly yells, "Hold it right there. You're under arrest. Place your hands behind your back." Then, the Miranda warnings. The suspect gets a new pair of metal bracelets and he or she is taken to jail. But, what exactly does that mean in real life?

Your criminal case in North Carolina may not follow a Hollywood script, but it will usually follow a basic outline. You'll have contact with the police: the Raleigh Police Department, the Wake County Sheriff, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, or some other police agency.

If you're arrested, you will be (or should be) read your Miranda rights. Then, the police have two options: take you to jail or release you with a citation and promise to appear at a later date. If you're taken into custody, you'll be transported to the Wake County Detention Center to await your first court appearance.

North Carolina law requires that you be informed of the charges against you and be brought before a magistrate within 48 hours of the arrest for your arraignment and to set bail. Bail is basically the money that you have to pay to the courts in order to be released from jail pending trial. You usually have to put up 10% of the total amount of bail the judge sets in your case in order to secure your release.

All of this will happen in Wake County District Court-10 where you will enter a plea of guilty, no contest, or not guilty. If you plead not guilty, you will have the option of hiring a lawyer, representing yourself, or asking for a public defender.

What happens next depends on whether you are accused of committing an infraction, felony, or misdemeanor.

Infraction

An infraction is the lowest level of offense and includes traffic, wildlife, boating, marine fisheries, state park recreation and alcoholic beverage offenses. Don't expect handcuffs or drug-sniffing K-9s, typically. The officer will issue you a citation stating you'll have to appear in court. If convicted, you can't be sentenced to jail -- a fine of less than $100 is the maximum punishment allowable for an infraction. You may appear at the Wake County Justice Center to challenge your ticket or to plead guilty to the charges. In some instances, you can simply pay the fine online or by mail. If you aren't sure, contact the court at (919) 792-4300 or send an email to waketraffic@nccourts.org.

Misdemeanor Cases

Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, but take note, a conviction or guilty plea can have consequences on your career, your educational opportunities, and your freedom. In Wake County, a typical misdemeanor case will take anywhere from one to five months. The simpler the case, the more likely it will be to be resolved.

Common North Carolina misdemeanors include minor drug possession, drug paraphernalia possession, assaults, stalking, certain traffic offenses, threats, some domestic violence, and Driving While Impaired (DWI) offenses.

Felony Cases

Felonies are serious crimes that carry serious penalties including years of prison time, large fines, and major repercussions for your life outside of prison. Your case will start in district court. If the case can't be resolved by a plea negotiation, the district attorney will submit the case to a grand jury. If the grand jury determines that there is probable cause to believe you have committed the felony offense, the grand jury will return a true bill of indictment, and your case will be transferred to superior court for trial.

Misdemeanors are divided into four different categories (A1, 1, 2, and 3), depending on the seriousness of the offense.

If you plead not guilty, the district attorney may make a plea offer on your case. In some Raleigh cases, especially where the defendant is a "first time offender," the District Attorney will offer to enter into a "deferral agreement," a community-service or substance-abuse counseling program that will result in dismissal of your case if you complete all your requirements.

Trial

You've rejected the offer and want to go to trial. The State must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Here is what to expect.

In a misdemeanor case in Raleigh, a trial takes place before a single judge who hears the evidence and determines whether the State has proved your guilt. You are not entitled to a jury for these types of offenses. If the judge finds you not guilty, the case ends and you may go free. If the judge finds you guilty, he or she will impose a sentence in your case ranging from a small fine, to probation, to an active prison sentence. If you are convicted of a misdemeanor in district court, you may appeal your conviction to superior court. Once in superior court, you are entitled to a new trial before a jury of 12 members of the community.

In a felony case, if you go to trial in superior court you automatically have the right to a jury trial where 12 randomly selected members of the community decide your guilt or innocence. If you are convicted, you may appeal your conviction to Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Conclusion

Criminal cases can have a serious, lasting impact on your life. You have options and rights. If the State does not have sufficient evidence to prove that you committed an offense, you may be entitled to a dismissal or a reduction in your charge. Similarly, if the State violated your civil rights during the investigation or prosecution of your case, a judge may suppress certain evidence in your case, meaning that the State cannot use the evidence against you at trial. Anyone charged with an offense should at least consider consulting a skilled attorney.