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Your Chattanooga Criminal Case: The Basics

Last updated: November 25, 2013

You've been arrested in "Chattown" and aren't sure what's going to happen. The District Attorney is jointly charging you and your brother with felony theft, burglary and a miscellaneous misdemeanor offense. You're brother thinks he has all the answers and tells you not to worry, but you know better. You need help.

You can start here. This article provides general information about what to expect in most cases if you or a loved one is arrested in Chattanooga.

Getting Arrested

An arrest is the start of your case in Hamilton County. You'll have been arrested by either the Chattanooga Police Department, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, or the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department.

You've probably seen numerous TV shows depicting rogue cops flagrantly violating a person's rights. Contrary to what you've seen, the police must follow certain rules once you are in custody or it could jeopardize the state's case against you.

Before you are interrogated, you should be read your Miranda rights, including your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney. Then, the police have two options: take you to jail for booking or release you with a promise to appear at a later date.

Bail and First Court Appearance

There's two ways you can leave jail -- you'll either be released on your own recognizance or have to post bail. Bail is 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 get out.

Courtrooms aren't usually pleasant and inviting places. If you are scared, confused, or a little of both, don't worry. That's completely normal. Knowing a little about what to expect might help.

Your first court appearance is called an arraignment. It will happen at one of the Chattanooga Courts. You will appear before a judge or magistrate who will advise you of your constitutional rights, give you a copy of the charges (called a complaint), and ask if you wish to be referred to the public defender. Usually, at this hearing you'll enter a plea of guilty, no contest, or not guilty. The court will also set future court dates.

Infractions

An infraction is a minor offense such as getting a traffic ticket while driving in Downtown Chattanooga, reckless driving, or having an open can of beer in public, to name a few. A code enforcement officer or cop will issue you a ticket summoning you to court. If convicted, you can't be sentenced to jail - a fine is the maximum punishment allowed. You may challenge your ticket or plead guilty to the charges. In some instances, you can simply pay the fine online or by mail.

Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies, but remember, a conviction or guilty plea can have repercussions beyond the courtroom.

Common Chattanooga misdemeanors include simple drug possession, simple assault, prostitution crimes, public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and a variety of other criminal offenses.

Penalties range from fines to incarceration for up to 11 months 29 day for a Class "A" misdemeanor. The more "aggravated" the misdemeanor, the more likely you will receive a longer sentence.

Your case will be set for a pretrial conference, where the judge, district attorney, and your attorney can talk about the case and try to reach a resolution. A first time offender charged with a non-violent crime will stand a better chance of sentence reduction then a repeat offender charged with a violent crime. If the attorneys can't reach an agreement, you'll go to trial.

Every criminal defendant has the right to a trial by jury. Because every person accused of a crime is presumed to be innocent, the burden is on the district attorney to convince 12 jurors that you are guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Felony Cases

Felonies are very serious crimes. There are several classes (A-E) of felony crimes, with punishment ranging from 1 year to life in prison, or capital punishment.

Conviction of a felony offense can lead to the loss or limitation of certain constitutional rights, including the right to vote, and to right to own or possess a firearm.

Preliminary Hearing and Second Arraignment

After the initial arraignment, your case will go through a preliminary hearing where the judge will listen to the prosecution and determine if enough evidence exists for the case to move to trial. Although the preliminary hearing resembles a trial in structure, this is not where the judge will determine your guilt or innocence.

If you are "bound over for trial," your case will have a second arraignment at the circuit court level. This again, is where the circuit court judge will inform you of the charges against you and review bail. Next, your case will be set for a pretrial conference.

Plea Bargain

If you enter into a plea bargain, you will be asked to give up your right to have a jury trial. You will then enter a plea of guilty or no contest to at least one of the charges. Your case will be referred to the probation department for a "presentence report," and continued for sentencing. The idea behind a plea bargain is usually to exchange your right to trial and to accept a conviction, in exchange for a lighter sentence or diminished charges.

Trial

If you go to trial, the prosecution must prove you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

You have the right to a jury trial where twelve people decide your guilt or innocence. Both the prosecutor and defense will present evidence. All twelve jurors must agree in order to convict or acquit. If the jury cannot agree, a "mistrial" will be declared and the case may be tried again before a different jury, settled by way of plea bargain or even dismissed.

Remember, you can't be compelled to testify. If the jury finds you guilty, the judge will sentence you.

Conclusion

If you are charged with a crime, having a seasoned legal professional on your side may give you a better chance of receiving a lower penalty. Consider speaking to a Chattanooga criminal defense attorney about your case, figure out your options, and come up with a plan of action.