The State Criminal Process - What To Expect

Arnold & Smith, PLLC attorneys have extensive experience representing clients facing state criminal charges. If you’ve been charged with a criminal offense at the State level, our attorneys will explain the entire process to you and make sure that you have a full understanding of what you’re up against. You may find it beneficial to review the following information to get a better idea of the process.

How a Case Begins

Criminal charges are brought in a few different ways: citation, criminal summons and warrant for arrest.

Citation: Citations are issued by officers when they have probable cause to believe a misdemeanor or infraction has been committed. Most people are familiar with citations because they have, at one point in their lives, received some sort of speeding ticket or other moving violation. Citations are issued for criminal offenses instead of an arrest at the discretion of an officer. However, if a defendant fails to show up for court, the court may issue an Order for Arrest.

Criminal Summons : Criminal summonses are similar to citations because they are served on an individual without a corresponding arrest. Criminal summonses may be brought either by an officer or a citizen by presenting their case to a magistrate or any other official authorized to issue warrants for arrest. If an officer or citizen demonstrates that there is probable cause to believe the offense occurred, the magistrate will issue a criminal summons. A magistrate may also issue a warrant for arrest in this type of situation. Typically the more serious the offense, the more likely it is that a warrant will be issued as opposed to a criminal summons.

Warrant for Arrest : A warrant for arrest is a document which states the crime of which the person to be arrested is accused as well as an order directing the accused to be arrested and held to answer the charges made against him. Like citations and criminal summonses, warrants must be supported by probable cause to believe the offense has been committed.

Securing Release After an Arrest

Once a defendant has been arrested typically they will be brought before a magistrate who will set their conditions of release and inform that defendant of how he may secure his release. If a defendant was arrested without a warrant, in addition to setting conditions of release, a magistrate must also determine whether or not there is probable cause to believe a defendant committed a crime and inform a defendant of the charges against him and the right to communicate with counsel and friends.

There are four categories of conditions of release: (1) written promise to appear; (2) unsecured bond; (3) secured bond; (4) custody release. Except in extraordinary cases, defendants are entitled to pretrial release.

First Appearance Before District Court Judge

If a defendant has not been able to secure his own release within 96 hours of his arrest, he must be brought before a District Court Judge for his first appearance. If a defendant was able to get out on bond, this first appearance may be conducted at a later date. On this date defendants are informed of their right against self-incrimination and their right to counsel. At this date defendants may choose to proceed without counsel, request court appointed counsel or inform the court they wish to hire their own counsel. For felony cases, defendants may also demand or waive their right to a probable cause hearing.

Pretrial Procedure

The time period before trial is critical in both felony and misdemeanor cases to investigate the charges and negotiate potential plea deals. In felony cases North Carolina law provides for discovery, but in misdemeanors, defendants have no such right. This is why contacting an attorney immediately after an arrest is critical. The more time that passes, the more difficult it is for a defense attorney to gather the necessary evidence to defend a case. If negotiations fail and a district attorney refuses to dismiss the charges, the next step is to proceed to trial.


District Courts are the first trial courts for misdemeanors. There are no juries here, just a judge who takes the role of a jury to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant. If a defendant is convicted, he or she has the right to appeal for a trial de novo in Superior Court. De novo means “from the beginning,” so everything that was done in District Court must be done again. Superior Court trials are also typically jury trials, although that right can be waived.

Felonies may only be tried in Superior Court. Just like misdemeanor trials in Superior Court, typically felonies are tried before juries, but that right may be waived.