What to Expect During the North Carolina Criminal Court Process

Interior of an empty courtroom with gavel, law books - criminal court process concept

Being charged with a crime can be a stressful and overwhelming experience. While you might have seen the criminal justice system depicted in movies or on TV, these dramatizations are very different from how a case plays out in real life. If it is your first time being arrested, you may be wondering how the criminal court process actually works. While your criminal defense attorney will explain the process to you from start to finish, here’s what you can expect:

Criminal Charges Are Brought

A criminal case can begin in a few different ways in North Carolina. For instance, if police officers have probable cause to believe an infraction or misdemeanor has been committed, they may issue a citation. These are commonly issued for speeding and moving violations. Failure to appear in court can, in some cases, result in the judge issuing an Order for Arrest. A case can also be commenced by the issuance of a criminal summons, which is a notice of the criminal charges brought against you that commands you to appear in court on a certain date.

However, most criminal cases begin with an arrest, which can either be made at the scene of the crime, or after a court issues a warrant for arrest. A warrant is a document that may be issued after an investigation, once probable cause has been established. It specifies the crime with which the defendant is being charged and a brief description of the alleged criminal act.

The Initial Court Appearance

After the arrest, a defendant will make their initial appearance in court before a magistrate. They will inform the defendant regarding the charges against them and advise them of their rights. In the event the defendant was arrested without a warrant, the magistrate will determine whether probable cause existed to make the arrest. At the initial appearance, the magistrate will frequently set the conditions for pretrial release. There are some charges - including domestic violence charges and other serious matters - where the judge must set the release conditions.

The First Appearance

Not to be confused with the initial appearance, a first appearance must be scheduled if the defendant is charged with a felony or certain misdemeanors. At this appearance, a District Court judge will inform the defendant of the charges brought against them, advise them of their right to have an attorney, and ensure they have a copy of the arrest warrant. The judge will also evaluate the defendant’s eligibility to be released from jail before trial and determine whether a probable cause hearing is being requested by the defendant.

The Probable Cause Hearing

If the charges are for a felony, a probable cause hearing will be scheduled, unless the defendant waives their right to one. If a hearing is held,, the prosecution has the burden to establish the existence of probable cause. The judge does not decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty — ultimately, the judge will determine if there is enough evidence for the defendant to stand trial. But even in cases where no probable cause is found by the judge, the District Attorney can still present the case to a grand jury unless this right is waived by the defendant.

Grand Jury

The grand jury determines whether probable cause exists to charge the defendant with a crime. The District Attorney will present their case against the defendant to the 18 individuals who comprise the grand jury. If 12 or more of the jurors agree, the grand jury will return with a “true bill of indictment,” which allows the District Attorney to move forward with the prosecution.


While North Carolina law provides for an arraignment proceeding following an indictment, it is typically waived by the defendant. However, if the defendant requests an arraignment, they will be advised of the charges against them and have the opportunity to enter their plea. In the event a defendant does not request an arraignment, a plea of not guilty will be entered on their behalf automatically.

The Pre-Trial Phase

Before a criminal trial, both the prosecution and defense will exchange information, referred to as “discovery.” At the pre-trial stage of the criminal court process, either side can also file motions which ask the court to take certain actions in the case. For instance, motions can be filed to set deadlines for discovery, prevent specific evidence from being introduced, or to discuss plea arrangements. A plea agreement can be entered into at any time between the defendant and the prosecution.

The Trial

Unless a plea bargain was entered into, if the charge involves a felony, the case will proceed to trial. At trial, the prosecution will present evidence and witnesses to support their case — which must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant may also present evidence at trial, but they are not required to do so. A jury that was selected at the beginning of the trial will be instructed as to their legal duties and the issues that they must decide. After deliberation, they will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

In cases where the charges are for a misdemeanor, there is no jury. Rather, a judge in District Court determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. In the event the judge finds the defendant is guilty, they may appeal for a trial de novo in Superior Court. Typically, the trials in Superior Court are jury trials, although a defendant can waive this right.


If a defendant is found guilty at trial, the next step in the criminal court process is sentencing. This is the formal punishment ordered by the court upon a conviction. North Carolina courts rely on a structured sentencing process for felonies. Specifically, a judge will rely on a chart which determines the sentence based on the nature of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and any aggravating or mitigating factors. A sentence can include jail time, community service, probation, and/or monetary fines.


A defendant may have the right to appeal the trial court’s decision if a mistake or error was made in the case that affected the outcome of the trial. Importantly, an appeal is separate from the criminal court process with its own rules and procedures. There are strict criteria and deadlines that must be met in order to file an appeal.

Contact an Experienced North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney for More Information About the Criminal Court Process

The criminal court process can be complex. If you’ve been charged with a crime, it’s essential to have a skillful criminal defense attorney by your side who can protect your legal rights and fight the charges against you. The Johnston County criminal defense attorneys at Reece & Reece, Attorneys at Law provide knowledgeable representation for a broad scope of criminal offenses. Call (919) 300-1249 to schedule a consultation and learn how we can help.

Categories: Criminal Defense