Q. Please describe what happens after a criminal complaint is filed.
A. Once a criminal complaint is filed it will be forwarded to either the appropriate county prosecutor’s office (in Essex County, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office) or the local municipal court. All complaints involving serious crimes or a combination of serious crimes and disorderly persons offenses will be forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office for review. Criminal complaints involving only disorderly persons offenses will be forwarded to the municipal court. The municipal court will advise the complainant and defendant of the hearing date. The court may issue a summons or a warrant followed by bail, depending upon the circumstances of the case, as to ensure the defendant’s knowledge of the complaint and availability for all following proceedings.
When a criminal complaint involving a serious crime or a combination of crimes and disorderly persons offenses is forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office, the county prosecutor’s office will perform an initial examination of the case. The county prosecutor’s office reviews the complaint, obtains the relevant police reports, contacts the complainant or victim and/or the investigating officer, and performs any additional investigation as necessary. After such review, the county prosecutor’s office will determine the appropriate course of action.
The county prosecutor’s office has broad discretion to determine the appropriate disposition for a criminal complaint and thus may handle a complaint in several different ways. The complaint may be administratively dismissed, remanded to municipal court, held for prosecution in Special Remand Court, or prosecuted in Superior Court.
Administrative Dismissal: A complaint may be administratively dismissed for several reasons. Chief among these reasons is the insufficiency of credible evidence. In some instances, a complaint may be dismissed at the request of the victim. However, a victim’s request to dismiss a complaint is not always honored. Once a criminal complaint is signed, the complaint is prosecuted on behalf of the State of New Jersey, not the individual who signed the complaint. When deciding whether to dismiss a complaint, several other factors are considered including, but not limited to, the following: (1) the nature and extent of the defendant’s prior criminal history; (2) the severity of the crime; and (3) whether the defendant has other pending charges.
Municipal Remand: A complaint is remanded to municipal court when the prosecutor’s office determines that the complaint can be adequately dealt with in municipal court. When a complaint is remanded to the municipal court, the original charge is amended to a disorderly persons offense and the complaint is returned to the municipal court. All further proceedings are handled in municipal court. Once a case is remanded to the municipal court, the municipal prosecutor generally handles the complaint. However, in certain instances, a disorderly persons offense is retained by the prosecutor’s office and is heard in Special Remand Court, which is like a municipal court but hears cases from throughout the county.
Complaint Prosecuted At The County Level: If a criminal complaint is not administratively dismissed or remanded to the municipal court, the County Prosecutor’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the complaint in Superior Court.
When the prosecutor’s office decides to prosecute the complaint in Superior Court, the case may be considered for resolution through a pre-indictment plea agreement or pre-trial intervention. If the defendant rejects the plea offer and is not appropriate for pre-trial intervention at this stage, the case proceeds to a grand jury. If an early plea offer is accepted, the Pre-Indictment Disposition Court will consider the plea and arrange for sentencing.
Grand Jury: The Federal and State Constitutions guarantee every individual charged with a crime the right to have his matter reviewed by an independent body called a grand jury. A person charged with a disorderly persons or motor vehicle offense does not have a right to have the case presented to a grand jury. In certain instances, where an investigation indicates that a crime may have been committed but no complaint has yet been filed, the case can be referred by the Prosecutor directly to the grand jury. The grand jury, comprised of 23 citizens, hears evidence regarding the criminal matter and determines if there is probable cause for the case to proceed further. If the grand jury finds that there is sufficient evidence for the case to proceed further, the person charged with the crime is “indicted”.
Grand jury proceedings are confidential. The grand jury meets in closed sessions and all evidence collected by them is kept secret unless and until a Superior Court Judge orders otherwise. The only individuals permitted in the room during a grand jury session are the grand jurors, the prosecutor, the witness, and the court reporter. Neither a judge nor a defense attorney is present during the proceeding. Usually, the defendant does not testify at grand jury. The defendant is also not present during another witness’ testimony.
Arraignment: Once a defendant has been indicted by the grand jury, the defendant must appear in court for an arraignment conference. At the arraignment conference, the defendant formally enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the case is scheduled for sentencing. Following arraignment, a Pre-Disposition Conference is held, where the State may present a plea offer.
Once the case proceeds to Superior Court, the case can be resolved by placing the defendant into the Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) program, through a plea agreement or by trial.
Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) Program: PTI is a one time opportunity for defendants who have no prior criminal history. Once a defendant has had the benefit of PTI in New Jersey or any other State, the defendant is not eligible for PTI. PTI is an agreement between the State and the defendant. The Probation Department supervises the PTI defendant. The defendant must pay an application fee. As part of the PTI agreement, a defendant may have to pay fines and restitution, perform community service, and depending on the facts of the case, obtain counseling, forfeit weapons, or have no contact with specific individuals. If the defendant successfully completes PTI, he will have no criminal record of that charge. If the defendant fails to comply with the conditions of PTI, he is terminated from PTI and his case is put on the trial list. The defendant can then plead guilty or proceed to trial.
Trial: When a case proceeds to trial, the State must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A petit jury consisting of twelve jurors decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. A guilty or not guilty verdict must be unanimous. If the jurors cannot agree on a verdict, there is a mistrial. If there is a mistrial, the defendant can be retried before a different jury.
Appeal: The defendant or the State may appeal the trial court’s interpretation of the law in regard to the procedures used at trial or in the legal interpretation of the evidence presented. Findings of fact by a judge or jury generally may not be reviewed. An appellate court may order a new trial or may overturn a guilty verdict if it finds that the trial court misapplied the law.
Q. What is a warrant, what is bail, and what is a summons?
A. A warrant is an order issued by a court requiring that a person suspected of committing a crime to be apprehended and taken into custody, i.e. be arrested. A person can also be arrested without a warrant by an officer who has probable cause that the person committed a crime. After a person is arrested, they make an initial appearance at Central Judicial Processing Court or before the Criminal Assignment Judge, depending on the seriousness of the crime charged. They are informed of the charges, and the judge decides if the defendant will be held in jail or can be released. The judge will consider public safety and the probability that the defendant will remain available for all upcoming proceedings. The judge can release the accused on personal recognizance, or set bail as a condition of release. Bail is the posting of something of value to permit the release of a suspect from jail designed to assure future appearance at all stages of the criminal process. If at any point the suspect fails to appear as required the bail is forfeited to the state and when apprehended the person is sent to jail. The accused usually purchases a bail bond to post with the court. A summons is a court order requiring the person to come to court to answer the charges filed against them.
Q. What courts handle criminal cases?
A. Municipal courts hear and decide cases involving disorderly persons offenses. There are no jury trials in municipal court. The judge decides if someone has broken the law, and imposes fines of up to $1,000 and / or imprisonment for up to 6 months. Municipal courts can also present charges and set bail for serious crimes. However, the Superior Court, Criminal Division handles the trial in every case where an adult has been accused of committing a serious crime. In such a case, the accused has a right to a jury trial. Crimes committed by persons under 18 years of age are considered acts of juvenile delinquency. Such cases are usually heard and decided in the Family Division of Superior Court, although very serious offenses can be treated by the Criminal Division as if the defendant were an adult. Appeals from municipal court decisions are heard in the Superior Court Criminal Division, and appeals from trials held in the Criminal Division are made to the Superior Court Appellate Division. Final appeals can be taken to the New Jersey Supreme Court if a constitutional issue is involved, in death penalty cases, and if there was a split decision in the Superior Court Appellate Division.
Q. Why does the Prosecutor’s Office plea bargain with criminals?
A. Plea agreements are made if and when they would benefit the overall goals of protecting the public and imposing justice through due process. If every defendant charged with a crime were to go to trial, our criminal justice system would literally come to a standstill. Victims would have to wait years for a decision, witnesses would lose interest, memories would fade, evidence would deteriorate, defendants would disappear, etc. In certain instances, a defendant will be offered a sentencing decision that considers his or her cooperation with the prosecution, especially where the defendant’s cooperation allows the prosecution of other criminals who would otherwise go free. The majority of defendants decide to plead guilty rather than contest their guilt by trial, and receive sentences that appropriately redress the wrongs they have committed.