Maricopa County is the fourth largest county in the U.S. by population with over 4 million residents within our jurisdiction. We are the third largest county-based prosecutor’s office in the U.S., behind the Cook County District Attorney’s Office in the metro Chicago area and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. We handle a large volume of felony cases reviewing over 50,000 felony submittals each year on average and prosecuting over well over 30,000 cases per year.
Every night, local news broadcasts may report stories of thefts, car chases, home invasions, sexual assaults and murder. Police respond and investigate, and after the perpetrator or perpetrators are arrested, our formal involvement begins. So, what exactly, happens when a case comes to our office?
The Prosecution Process Part I
A Crime Occurs
Every crime and every case is unique with varying degrees of harm and impact to individuals and communities. Nevertheless, most follow the same basic procedural pattern. First, someone chooses to commit a crime.
Law Enforcement Conducts an Investigation
A law enforcement officer either observes the crime or receives a report about a suspected crime. Whether because of what they observe or the information comes from a fellow citizen who is a victim of a crime or a witness to a crime, law enforcement begins an investigation based on that initial information.
An Arrest is Made
If they develop probable cause to believe a specific individual has committed a specific crime, law enforcement may make an arrest.
If arrested, the suspect is taken to jail and booked, or officially registered in the criminal justice system as being suspected of having committed a specific crime.
The Suspect Has an Initial Appearance before a Judge
Within 24-hours of the booking, a suspect will appear before a judge in Initial Appearance Court. At this hearing, four things take place: the suspect is formally informed of the alleged offense(s) he or she has been arrested for; the suspect is advised of their right to an attorney, and if they cannot afford one, the judge appoints an attorney from the public defender’s office to represent the suspect; the judge determines whether or not the suspect can be released until their next court appearance—and under what conditions, such as whether or not they will be required to post a bond—and a date is set for the suspect’s next court appearance.
Meanwhile, police submit the results of their investigation to that point along with recommended charges to the County Attorney’s Office, who will review the case and make a decision whether or not to file formal charge(s) against the individual and, if so, with what specific crime(s).
The County Attorney can formally charge someone one of two ways – and sometimes both: by presenting a Direct Complaint to a Judge, or by presenting evidence to a Grand Jury. If the charge is filed by Direct Complaint, a judge will then need to also preside over a Preliminary Hearing where the State must establish that there is sufficient evidence to permit the case to go forward. If a case is charged by a Grand Jury, the Grand Jury makes that determination as part of the charging process and issues a True Bill resulting in an Indictment.
Part II will address the pretrial stage and the remainder of the process.
Pretrial Hearings/ Trial
At that point, a suspect becomes a defendant and their case moves forward through the pre-trial process of sharing discovery, addressing challenges to evidence, conducting interviews of witnesses, and ultimately a trial before a judge or jury.
However, the vast majority of cases never go all the way to a trial.
The overwhelming majority of cases are resolved by a plea agreement, where the parties settle a case in a way that holds a defendant accountable yet avoids the additional time and cost of going to trial – as well as ensuring that a victim of a crime receives justice, too, and the community is served. Usually a defendant pleads guilty to certain charges in exchange for a reduced sentence. All plea agreements must be approved by a judge who must also find that a plea agreement is in the interests of justice and victims are consulted before a plea offer is made and have a right to be heard by the court before a plea agreement is accepted.