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Criminal Defense Procedure in Tennessee Courts

A good criminal defense attorney will explain to you the process of your case and how it is likely to proceed. However, it is also important for every person to understand the criminal courts in Tennessee and how they work. Continue reading to learn more about this topic.

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Citation v. Arrest. If you are given a citation for an offense, there will be a booking date where you will need to appear and have your photograph taken, your fingerprints taken, and your biographical information entered. In Davidson County, your initial court appearance will take place immediately after you are booked. If you are arrested for an offense, you will be booked when you are transported to jail and provided a court date which may change depending on if you succesfully bond out of jail. 

2 Levels of Local Courts. There are essentially two levels of local courts: General Sessions and Circuit Court. All criminal matters are first heard in the General Sessions Court for that jurisdiction. General Sessions Magistrates hear all types of cases, including small civil cases, in addition to criminal matters. If you are detained during your proceedings, you must have a preliminary hearing within 10 days. If you are not detained, you must have a preliminary hearing within 30 days. 

Settlements. Through negotiations with the prosecutor, you may decide to enter into an agreement to plead guilty, or to perform some other set of requirements such as taking a class, or receiving Judicial Diversion. If this happens, you will not proceed with a preliminary hearing and your agreement will be entered by the General Sessions Magistrate. If you have been charged with a felony, the felony however cannot be resolved at the General Sessions level and must go to Circuit Court. 

Preliminary hearing. If no agreement is met and your case proceeds to a preliminary hearing, the purpose of the hearing is so the Magistrate can make a determination as to whether the State has "probable cause" to charge you with the offense. This is not a trial, and a finding of probable cause does not mean you would be found guilty at a trial, which is held to the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." If there is no probable cause the Magistrate should dismiss your case. If probable cause is found, your case will then proceed to the Grand Jury at a later date, which will make an additional determination of probable cause. You will not appear in front of the Grand Jury. They will review the Court's record of the proceedings.

Circuit Court. If the Grand Jury agrees with the General Sessions Magistrate that the State has probable cause to charge you, then your case will be assigned to a Circuit Court Judge. A scheduling Order will be given providing you with specific dates for filing pretrial motions, negotiating any settlement, and setting your case for trial. Pretrial motions can be filed to argue why your case should be dismissed, why certain evidence should not be allowed at trial, as well as to resolve other issues regarding your case. 

Trial. If your case is not dismissed by the Judge or settled it will proceed to a trial. You can elect to have a bench trial (trial by the Judge without a jury) or a jury trial, consisting of 12 members. If you are acquitted (found not guilty) the State cannot appeal. If you are found guilty, you have the right to file an appeal to the Criminal Court of Appeals. If unsuccessful on appeal, you can ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to take your case, however there is no guarantee they will.

For more information on the immigration consequences that a criminal conviction can have, click here to go to our website.

If you've already missed your court date and don't know what to do, contact a Criminal Defense attorney immediately. You can also read up on the issue here

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