As a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer with over 25 years of experience, there’s nothing I haven’t seen or heard from my clients.
It’s true that every case is unique—no two are exactly the same. But the one thing they all have in common? The fact that getting arrested is a frightening, alarming experience.
So many questions and thoughts run through your mind. You’re wondering what your rights are, what happens next, and how to navigate this confusing process. You want to put all of this behind you as fast as possible, but you’re also worried about rushing and saying or doing the wrong thing.
That’s why I put together this complete walkthrough and FAQ on the New Jersey criminal case process. Keep reading to learn how all this will unfold, what to expect, and how to prepare.
Investigation and Criminal Complaint
You might be surprised to hear that getting arrested isn’t the first stage of the New Jersey criminal case process. But it’s true—first, law enforcement officials must either witness a crime or receive a report of one.
Next, they have to investigate the alleged crime. Taking photos of the scene, collecting fingerprints or any DNA left behind, reviewing recordings, speaking with witnesses or the victim, and gathering any other type of evidence are all part of the investigation.
Their goal is finding enough evidence to establish probable cause, which means that a crime did occur and they can link you to it. If they succeed in this process, a criminal complaint gets put together.
The complaint is usually bolstered by an eyewitness account given under oath, or law enforcement officials listing the facts under oath.
In New Jersey, minor crimes are “disorderly persons offenses” or “petty disorderly persons offenses.” For these offenses, you’ll most likely receive a summons to NJ municipal court.
More serious crimes are “indictable offenses.” If your charges are of this more serious nature, the judge can sign an arrest warrant. In this scenario, you’ll be dealing with the appropriate NJ superior court for your county.
The arrest process is actually one of the simpler parts of the New Jersey criminal case process. Once law enforcement gets their arrest warrant, they’ll come after you.
You’ll be searched and then formally booked. Booking involves recording information like your address, fingerprints, mugshot, and other details.
Your Pre-Trial Detention and First Appearance
According to New Jersey Law, bail is no longer part of the legal system like it is in other US states. But the judge must still decide whether to release you, release you with certain conditions, or keep you in custody until your trial. Your past criminal record and the details of your charges all factor into their decision.
Your first appearance must be within 72 hours if you’re being kept in custody (excluding holidays). If you’ve been released by the judge, the first appearance must be scheduled without needless delays.
The judge will inform you of your rights, what you’re accused of, and review your release conditions (if any). You must also plead one way or the other. As a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I almost always advise pleading not guilty at this stage. Contact my office at (732) 487-3388 to start discussing custom strategies and defenses for your case.
Pre-Trial Intervention Option for Indictable Offenses
If you’re a first-time offender facing indictable offense charges, you’ll be informed of New Jersey’s pre-trial intervention (PTI) program. This prison alternative may allow you to forego a formal trial and instead follow set steps outlined by the court.
If the judge, prosecutor, and Criminal Division Manager assigned to your case agree, you’ll be allowed to enter this program. You may be required to do things like attend court-ordered counseling, enter court-supervised community living, and participate in other rehabilitation systems.
If you complete the program successfully, the charges against you will be dismissed.
The Pre-Indictment Process and Negotiating a Plea Bargain
At this moment, the prosecution has a lot of power. This is the stage where they can agree to a prison alternative or continue moving your case through the court process.
And this is one of several phases where having a successful, skilled New Jersey criminal defense attorney can be make or break. As your attorney, I can work with the prosecutor to discuss dismissing your charges or a prison alternative.
You can also work out a plea bargain during this stage. If I believe this is your best path forward, I’ll discuss this option with you ahead of the negotiations.
Indictment by a Grand Jury
If your case isn’t resolved in the previous phase, a Grand Jury will hear all the evidence from the prosecution. Their job is to decide whether you could’ve reasonably committed the crime(s) in question. These people can vote one of three ways:
- No bill, which means the charges are dismissed due to lack of enough evidence
- True bill, also called an indictment, which means the jury agrees with the prosecutor and you’re formally charged
- Downgrade, which means your charges are reduced and your case is heard in municipal court
Unlike in a trial, the jury isn’t deciding whether you’re guilty or innocent. They’re focused on whether there’s enough evidence to show you could reasonably be guilty.
Indictable offenses in the state of New Jersey include first, second, third, and fourth-degree crimes:
- Firearm or weapon charges
- Prescription drug fraud
- Possession and/or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS)
- Credit card fraud
- Aggravated assault
Your Pre-Arraignment and Arraignment
If you’re indicted, the prosecution has 21 days to share any evidence they plan to use against you. This gives you and your defense attorney the opportunity to build a custom defense.
Then, your formal arraignment is scheduled for within 50 days of your indictment. At the arraignment, you can plead guilty, not guilty, no contest, etc.
Throughout this entire period, your attorney can keep trying to reach an alternative resolution with the prosecution. You can even elect to enter the PTI program at this stage if you’re eligible.
Your Pre-Trial Conference and Trial
If your case isn’t resolved in the previous step, it’ll go before a trial. But first, there’s a final pre-trial conference, or final status conference. The judge uses this time to confirm that discovery is complete, no motions are still pending, and every step has been taken to resolve your case.
With all of this confirmed, you can proceed to the trial. A trial memorandum will be prepared and then added to your court record with a date for the trial.
Like any trial, the judge and jury’s mentality should be “innocent until proven guilty.” You can elect to have a jury of 12 people at your trial, or apply with the court to have just a judge.
Either way, the prosecution will present their evidence to try and prove your guilt. Meanwhile, your attorney will work to prove why the evidence isn’t sufficient and why you’re innocent.
Any witnesses for either side will testify and then be questioned by the other side. You might testify yourself, or you might not. It just depends on the details of your charges. Then closing statements will be made by both sides. The jury (or judge) deliberates and arrives at a verdict.
At the end of the trial, you’ll either be found innocent or guilty based on the evidence. If you’re declared innocent, you can finally move on with your life. If you’re found guilty, you still have a few steps ahead of you.
Investigating Pre-Sentence, Reports, and Your Sentence
If your charges are very serious, you’ll likely have one more hearing about your sentence. Another investigation is done, and case officers prepare a report for the judge. The judge will weigh this report, the details of your case, and any other relevant factors before issuing your sentence.
It’s also your right to appeal the judge’s decision if you’re found guilty. This process goes through the Superior Court’s Appellate Division.
Will I have to remain in custody until my trial?
With the New Jersey criminal case process, you may have to remain in custody until your trial. It depends on what the judge decides in regards to your pre-trial detention. And the nature of your charges has an impact on this decision, too.
If you’re charged with an indictable offense—which is equivalent to a felony—you can be held for up to 48 hours following your arrest and booking. During this time, the prosecution collects background info on you and schedules a hearing with a judge.
During this hearing, the judge considers several factors about you and your case. They can release you until your trial, release you with additional conditions, or choose to keep you in custody until your trial.
If you’re charged with a disorderly persons offense—which is like a misdemeanor—you’re usually only in custody until the booking process is complete.
Are there any programs or alternatives to prison that I may be eligible for?
Yes, there are likely programs or alternatives to prison in New Jersey that you may be eligible for, such as:
- Drug court, which includes fines and rigorous probation requirements. Sometimes available to first-time offenders with non-violent drug charges.
- Conditional discharge, which combines supervised treatment, a stipulation of not getting arrested again, and other obligations. Typically reserved for marijuana possession charges in NJ.
- Conditional dismissal, which allows you to pay fees/fines and court costs in lieu of going to jail. The dismissal is reversed if you’re arrested or get into trouble again. Normally available if you’ve been charged with a non-drug related petty disorderly persons offense or disorderly persons offense.
- Pre-trial intervention (PTI), which requires you to do things like mental health and/or drug counseling, supervised probation, etc. Your records will be expunged upon successful completion. Only available to first-time offenders if the charges are non-violent.
The specific details of your case and your history will impact which, if any, of these programs you’re eligible for.
How can a criminal defense attorney in New Jersey help me?
As an experienced New Jersey criminal defense attorney, here’s how I can help you:
- Reviewing the details of your case to determine viable defense strategies
- Preparing you for every step of the New Jersey criminal case process
- Advising you during any questioning from the prosecution or law enforcement
- Ensuring legal paperwork and procedures are handled properly
- Giving you my honest opinions throughout your case, no sugar-coating
Basically, you can sleep at night throughout your proceedings knowing I’ve got your best interests at heart. More importantly, you can rest easy knowing I’m doing absolutely everything in my power to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.
From making sure your rights are protected to standing by your side in court, I’ve got your back.
Check out the criminal case process in Middlesex County NJ.
If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges in New Jersey of any time, don’t delay. The sooner you contact me, the sooner we can start building a defense to protect your future. Just call me, Middlesex County Criminal Defense Lawyer John B. Fabriele, III immediately at (732) 246-0888 for your free case evaluation.