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A Guide Through Georgia's Criminal Justice System

The following information is provided by Victim's Assistance, Office of the District Attorney, to help the general public better understand the Criminal Justice System. Please use this guide to help explain terminologies, words, and phrases that you are not familiar with. If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at (229) 438-3985. 

Crime Victim's Bill of Rights

In 1995 the Georgia Legislature passed the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, providing that victims be given notice of their rights and responsibilities in the criminal justice system. You are entitled, whenever practicable, to notice of the accusers release from custody. Ordinarily, the accused has been arrested and released prior to the District Attorney's office involvement and this notice will come to you from a law enforcement agency. If the accused is in custody at the time the case is called for trial, then you are entitled, whenever practicable, to notice of any judicial proceedings at which the release of the accused will be considered, and you should receive this notice from the District Attorney's Victim Assistance office. However, the District Attorney's office is not required to give you such notice unless you provide a telephone number, other than a pager or car phone you can be reached at. If you wish to be notified, please contact the Victim Advocate at the District Attorney's Victim Assistance office, 229-438-3985 or 229-431-3233, and provide your name, the accused's name, and your telephone numbers for this purpose. If you do not provide this information, we will attempt to contact you using whatever telephone number is available to us from the police report or public sources.

You are also entitled to advance notification of any scheduled court proceedings and notice of any changes to that schedule. Court proceedings shall include, but not be limited to, pretrial commitment hearings, arraignment, motion hearings, trial and sentencing. In order to receive notice of these proceedings, you must make a request in writing. If you wish to receive this information, there is a place in the Victim Response Form for you to use to exercise your rights.

 

Pre-Trial Release of the Accused

In most instances, the accused is entitled to bail as a matter of law. You have the right to express your opinion on the release of the accused pending judicial proceedings. There is a place provided in the Victim Response Form for any objections you may have. If you object to the release of the accused prior to trial, please state your reasons on this form and return it to the District Attorney's Victim Assistance Office. As a certain condition, the violation of which will result in his/her re-arrest and re-incarceration.

If the court has granted pre-trial release or supersedes bond, you have the right to file a written complaint with the District Attorney's office asserting acts or threats of physical violence of intimidation by the accused or at the accused's direction against you or your immediate family made during incarceration or after release of the accused. Based on your written complaint or other evidence, the District Attorney may move the court that the bond or personal recognizance of the accused by revoked. If you wish to make such a complaint
please contact the Victim Advocate in the District Attorney's office. 

 

Victim Compensation

As a victim of a criminal act you are eligible for victim compensation. Victim compensation is administered by the State of Georgia and the maximum amount of compensation is $10,000. There is generally a 180-day limit after the occurrence of the crime for making an application for compensations. If you are interested in applying for compensation, contact the Victim Advocate. We can supply you with the forms and give you general advice with regard to your application. However, we cannot serve as your legal counsel or representative, and you will be responsible for accurately completing the form and timely submitting it.

 

Procedural Steps In A Criminal Case In Dougherty County

Arrest: An arrest occurs when a law enforcement officer takes the accused into custody. Usually this is pursuant to a warrant issued by the Magistrate after a law enforcement officer testifies before the Magistrate that there was sufficient evidence (probable cause) to make an arrest. In some cases an arrest is made without a warrant, but an officer must obtain a warrant from the Magistrate within a reasonable period of time. The accused is incarcerated in Dougherty County Jail.

Bail: The accused may be released on bail pending the deposition of the case. Bail is an amount of money determined by a Judge which the accused must post with the court. The accused also has the option of having approved landowners pledge their property, called a bond, or having the bail posted by a professional bondsman or a personal recognizance bond. Ordinarily, in misdemeanor cases the Judge has predetermined an amount of bail and the accused is permitted to post the bail as soon as possible. In some cases, particularly domestic violence cases, the accused will remain in custody until he/she makes a first appearance before the Magistrate for the purpose of determining bail. Bond on certain felony charges can only be set by a Superior Court Judge.

First Appearance: A first appearance is sometimes called a preliminary hearing; First appearance proceedings are conducted by the Magistrate in the courtrooms at the Dougherty County Jail. At the first appearance, the accused is advised of his/her rights by the Magistrate and bail is set. In some cases, particularly domestic violence cases, the Magistrate will place conditions on the bail that the accused shall not have any further contact with the victim. This is known as a conditional bond. If the accused violates the condition of the bond, then after notice and a hearing the bond can be revoked and the defendant returned to jail without bail until disposition of the case in court.

Arraignment: At the arraignment the defendant may enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the plea is guilty, then the Court can proceed to sentencing. This is why it is so important that the Victim Impact Statement and Victim Response Form is received by our office as soon as possible from you. If the accused has obtained an attorney, the arraignment can be waived and nothing will take place on this date. Very often a defendant will appear in court and will apply for a court appointed attorney. This may or may not delay the arraignment depending on whether or not the application is approved. If the accused enters a plea of not guilty, then a trial date will be assigned. Trial term in Dougherty County is every other month starting in January with Superior Court and in February with State Court.

Commitment Hearing: If a commitment hearing is held, evidence is presented to the Judge who decides whether that evidence is sufficient for a trial. If the Judge finds enough evidence, the case will be "Bound Over". The accused then becomes the defendant. Misdemeanors (less serious crimes) are sent to State Court. Felonies (more serious crimes), punishable by more than one year in jail are sent to Superior Court.

Grand Jury Hearing: If the case is sent to Superior Court, the next event will usually be a grand jury hearing, at which time witnesses and the police may give testimony to the Grand Jury. A grand jury is a group of 23 citizens called together to decide whether or not there is enough evidence to indict, that is, formally charge the defendant. The Grand Jury hearing is the only court procedure not open to the public, therefore, unless someone is subpoenaed to testify, he or she cannot be in the Grand Jury Room. The defendant and his defense attorney are not generally present when evidence is presented to the Grand Jury. The District Attorney or Assistant District Attorney presents the evidence to the Grand Jury through witnesses. Only members of the Grand Jury are present when the Grand Jury votes on the indictment.

Pre-Trial Motions: In some cases the defendant files pre-trial motions which must be heard by the court prior to trial. These usually involve technical legal points and are scheduled by the Court according to the Court's schedule.

Plea Bargaining and Pre-trial Conferences: Plea bargaining is a discussion or a series of discussions between the District Attorney representing the State of Georgia and the defense attorney, and sometimes the defendant if unrepresented. In these discussions the parties exchange facts, positions, issues of laws and attitudes regarding sentencing. The purpose is to arrive at an agreed upon sentence which will be imposed if the defendant enters a plea of guilty. This agreement is submitted to the Judge for approval or rejection.

Guilty Plea: Superior Court holds a plea day the Monday before each trial term. The defendant may appear before the Judge and enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendre rather than have a trial. There are two types of guilty pleas a defendant may enter: negotiated or non-negotiated. In a negotiated guilty plea, the District Attorney and the defense attorney agree to a sentence which they propose to the Judge. The Judge may or may not accept the proposed sentence. A non-negotiated plea is one for which the District Attorney and defense attorney have not reached an agreement. In a non-negotiated plea, the defendant appears before the Judge and the Judge determines the sentence. Victims are not subpoenaed to plea hearings but certainly may attend if they wish.

Trial: If the accused pleads not guilty, the case will proceed to trial. The accused has a right to a jury trial under Georgia law. This right may be waived. If a jury trial is held, victims and witnesses are subpoenaed to testify. A jury of 12 citizens listens to evidence and testimony and determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. During the trial, victims and witnesses are requested to remain in the state's witness room until they are called by the bailiff to testify. All 12 jurors must agree the defendant is guilty for there to be a conviction. If the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision, the Judge will declare a mistrial. When a mistrial occurs, the case will be retired, usually in the following trial term. If the jury returns a not guilty verdict the process is over. If the jury returns a guilty verdict, the court may sentence the defendant immediately or order a pre-sentence investigation.

The pre-sentence investigation is conducted by a probation officer. This is another reason why it is so important that you return the Victim Impact Statement and Victim Response Form to our office, so it will be available to the probation officer doing the pre-sentence report. Once the pre-sentence report is completed the defendant will be sentenced on a date determined by the court.

Sentencing

If the accused pleads guilty or is found guilty at the trial, the Court will impose sentence. A criminal sentence may consist of several features.

Incarceration: Incarceration means to be put in Jail or Prison

Probation: The Court may allow a portion or all of the sentence of prison/jail to be served on probation. The defendant would be allowed to serve the sentence outside jail under general terms of probation, such as: support dependants, obey the law, maintain employment etc. If the defendant violates the terms and conditions of probation, the probation office can bring an action to revoke the probationary sentence and require the accused to serve the balance of the sentence in jail. Whether or not a revocation proceeding is brought is determined by the probation officer, and whether or not the probation is revoked, in full or in part, is determined by the Judge.

Special conditions of probation: The Court may also tailor special conditions of probation to fit the facts of a specific case. Examples of special conditions are curfew, counseling and restitution orders.

Restitution: After a finding of solvency, the Court can order the accused to make restitution to the victim while on probation. If restitution is ordered, it will focus on certain clearly identifiable losses such as: medical expenses, property damage and property loss. It will not include loss of time from work, pain and suffering, legal expenses, counseling fees or damages the defendant has not been found guilty of. If the defendant disputes the amount of restitution ordered by the court, he/she is entitled to a hearing where evidence will be presented to determine the proper amount of restitution. In cases involving total loss of property due to theft or damage, the measure of loss will be fair market value at the time of loss and not replacement value. There is a place on the back of the Victim Impact Statement for you to list any monetary damages you have incurred because of the crime charged. To be considered by the Court, you must submit supporting documentation, such as bill of sale, receipts, professional estimates, etc. If you need any assistance completing this form or have any questions about your case please contact Victim Assistance in the District Attorney's Office.

Community Service: The Court may order the defendant to complete a number of hours of community service as part of his/her sentence.

Separate Waiting Area

While in court, you have the right to wait in an area separate from the accused, from the family and friends of the accused, and from witnesses for the accused during any judicial proceedings involving the accused, provided that such separate area is available and its use in such a manner is practical. If such a separate area is not available or practical, the Court, upon request of the victim made through the District Attorney, shall attempt to minimize the victim's contact with the accused, the accused's relatives and friends, and witnesses for the accused during any judicial proceedings.

If you would like for us to make arrangements for a separate waiting area or take steps to minimize contact between you and the accused, his/her family and friends and witnesses, then please notify the Victim Advocate. We will request that the Court take such measures as are practical to make provisions for this.

Confidentiality of Address

The District Attorney's office is required by law to provide the defendant or the defense attorney with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the witnesses for the state, including the victim. The Crime Victims' Bill of Rights provides that as a condition of permitting a response to an inquiry as to the victim's current address, telephone number, or place of employment, the Court may require counsel or any other officer of the Court, including but not limited to counsel for the defendant, not to transmit or permit transmission to the defendant of the victim's current address, telephone number or place of employment by the counsel or officer of the Court or any employee, agent, or other representative of the counsel or officer of the Court.

In plain language, this provision of law provides that whereas the state must give this information to the defense attorney, the Court can order the defense attorney not to transmit this information to the defendant. It is the opinion of the District Attorney that this provision of the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights is virtually unenforceable. However, if you wish for your current address, telephone number or place of employment to remain confidential, then please inform the Victim Advocate.

Deceased Crime Victims

The rights set out in the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights are personal to the crime victim. In homicide cases or in the event of the death of the crime victim, the law provides that the rights pass in successive order to certain designated relations.

1. the spouse
2. an adult child if #1 doesn't apply
3. a parent if #1 and #2 do not apply
4. a sibling if #1-3 do not apply and
5. a grandparent if #1-4 do not apply

If you have received this material and have knowledge of a successive party who now holds the rights under Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, we would appreciate your informing us so that we can forward the material to the proper party.

Minor Victims and Legally Incapacitated Victims

The Crime Victim's Bill of Rights provides that the rights of a minor or a legally incapacitated person pass to a parent, guardian or custodian of the crime victim except if such parent, guardian or custodian is in custody for an offense or is the defendant.

Physically Disabled Victims

If a victim is physically disabled and unable to exercise the privileges and rights under the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights, the victim may designate by written instrument his/her spouse, adult child, parent, sibling or grandparent to act in place of the victim during the duration of the physical disability.

If you are a physically disabled victim and wish to designate someone else to exercise your privileges and rights under the law, there is a place provided in the Victim Response Form for your use. Please fill this out and return it to the office.

Victim Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the victim who desires notification under the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights or under any other notification statute to keep the following informed of the victim's current address and phone number: (1) the investigating law enforcement agency; (2) the prosecuting attorney, until final disposition or completion of the appellate and post-conviction process, whichever occurs later; (3) as directed by the prosecuting attorney, the sheriff if the accused is in the Sheriff's custody for pre-trial, trial or post-conviction proceedings; the Department of Corrections if the accused is in the custody of the state; or any county correctional facility if the defendant is sentenced to serve time in a facility which is not a state facility; and (4) the State Board of Pardon and Paroles.

You must notify Victim Assistance in the District Attorney's office of any change of your mailing address, street address or telephone number.

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