So many criminal cases are brought by prosecutors every year that the courts have developed very predictable steps that take the case from the commission of a crime to trial and sentencing. In the United States, one of the steps is a status conference and another is a plea hearing. There is also a pre-trial hearing. It is easiest to put these into context by understanding the outline of a criminal case.
A status conference in a criminal court is a hearing to determine the status, or progress and direction, of a case. A plea hearing is the court appearance in which the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty.
Early Steps in a Criminal Case
Typically, a criminal case begins when the crime is committed and discovered. Once criminal activity has been discovered, the police may interview all relevant people, as well as preserving the crime scene by taking photos, recording measurements, and lifting fingerprints and DNA samples.
In time, the police usually find and arrest a suspect. They then refer the case to the District Attorney’s Office suggesting charges. The prosecutor (an attorney) reviews all of the evidence the police have gathered. He or she then determines whether the person will be charged with a crime.
The prosecutor can either issue or decline criminal charges. If the prosecutor decides to issue charges, they then file a criminal complaint charging the person with committing a misdemeanor or a felony. Those charged with misdemeanor will likely post bail and be released pending trial. Those charged with felonies sit tight until the initial appearance in court.
At the initial appearance, the judge talks to the defendant about the charges, the maximum penalty, and their rights to an attorney. Sometimes bail is set and the defendant is released pending trial. If they can’t make bail, they may remain in jail until trial.
Hearings and Conferences
After this initial stage of the criminal process, the court schedules a variety of hearings and conferences to get the case organized. Misdemeanor cases proceed differently than felonies.
In misdemeanor cases, the defendant enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest at an early plea hearing. In felony cases, the court sets a date for a preliminary hearing at which the prosecutor must prove to the court that there is sufficient evidence to believe that the defendant committed the crime. After that, the court may hold a status conference to determine the progress and direction of the case. Status conferences are an important case management tool.
An arraignment is the hearing at which the defendant is charged with the crime and enters a plea. The court usually holds a pre-trial hearing to organize issues before trial.
After these hearings and conferences, a trial is scheduled and, in time, is held if the case doesn't settle. The defendant is either convicted or acquitted.