Anatomy of a Michigan Felony

Arraignment

Regardless of whether bail-bond has been posted, the first court appearance in Michigan is called an “arraignment.” It is at this point that the accused is informed of their right to an attorney. The accused does not plead to the charge at this initial appearance. Instead, the accused is asked whether he or she wishes to require the state to hold a Preliminary Examination.

Preliminary Examination

When charged with a felony crime (one punishable by prison) in Michigan, the accused is given at statutory right to a Preliminary Examination, which is commonly referred to a “Prelim.” This is not a constitutional right in Michigan, which means that the rules of evidence are relaxed to some extent. The state prosecutor is required to satisfy a judge that “probable cause” exists that a crime has been committed, and that the accused is the person who probably committed it. The rule of “probable cause” is a long way from proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is the standard required for a conviction at trial. The right to a Prelim allows the accused to have a judicial finding of probable cause to continue to keep the accused subject to the authority of the state. However, the Preliminary Examination may be waived (or given up) by the accused. If the judge finds probable cause, the case continues and the accused is “bound over” to the trial court, and is now referred to as the “defendant.” If probable cause is not found, the accused is released; charges may be brought again by the prosecutor if more evidence is discovered.

Pretrial Process

The remainder of the process in Michigan adult court begins the pendulum swing toward the benefit of the defendant and away from the state. Throughout this pre-trial process, police tactics and procedures used in the defendant’s individual case are tested for their legality by presenting the facts of what happened and legal arguments to the judge—without a jury—in an effort to keep the state from using illegally-obtained evidence or confessions against the defendant. This is called “suppression of evidence.” Through various “motions” filed on behalf of the defendant, the state may be prohibited from using certain evidence or statements. It is also at this stage that a “plea bargain” (a reduction of charges in exchange for a guilty plea) may be discussed. Any plea bargain must be acceptable by both the prosecution and the defense and must be entered in a formal court proceeding called a “Plea Hearing.” If a plea is entered, the case then proceeds to the “Sentencing” phase of the case.

Trial

A trial is a fact-finding mission conducted either by a judge or a jury. This is an in-court examination and resolution of the case against the defendant. A trial can be simply organized into six steps: 1) Opening remarks by both the prosecutor and the defense 2) Presentation of evidence by both sides with the prosecutor’s case being presented first 3) Closing arguments by both sides 4) Judge’s instructions to the jury, if a jury trial is chosen by the defendant 5) Jury deliberations, where the jury adjourns to privately discuss the evidence presented in the case, and 6) Judge’s reading of the jury’s verdict of “not guilty” (when the prosecutor has failed to present enough evidence to convict the defendant and the defendant is released with charges dropped) or “guilty.” If the defendant is found guilty of the charges of the case, the case proceeds to the sentencing phase of the case.

Sentencing

The last phase of a felony case in Michigan is the formal court hearing known as sentencing.  At this hearing, the defendant may present evidence of mitigating factors or evidence of the defendant’s character; character witnesses may present evidence on behalf of the defendant. After hearing from both the prosecution and the defense, the judge hands down his sentence, which may involve monetary fines, probation, incarceration, and/or restitution.