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Understanding the Criminal Defense Process

What Can I Expect from the Criminal Defense Process?

Providing an Aggressive Defense Against Your Charges

At the Law Office of James R. Snell, Jr., LLC, we want to help you understand what to expect in the months following a criminal charge. By understanding the South Carolina court processes relevant to your case, you can ensure that you remain in the best position possible to have your charges favorably resolved.

Pre-Arrest Police Investigation

Some individuals are fortunate enough to know in advance that they are under investigation by law enforcement. This may come in the form of being accused of breaking the law, or by being contacted directly by the police. We recommend that anyone at this stage of the process remain silent, and not talk about the situation with their accuser, other individuals or law enforcement. Everything said can and will be used against them later on.

Bond Court

After someone is arrested the police will transport them to the local detention center or jail. They will first be booked in. This will involve being fingerprinted, having a mug shot taken, and being evaluated by jail medical staff. Usually within 24 hours they will be taken to Bond Court to appear in front of a Magistrate judge. The purpose of Bond Court is to determine if they will be allowed to be released from jail while the charges are pending. The judge will set any conditions on this release, usually involving the posting of a cash deposit with the court and other conditions such as to avoid contact with the alleged victim. The deposit, called bond, can also be posted with the assistance of a bail bondsman.

Money paid to a bail bondsman is kept by them as their fee, even if the defendant goes to court as required. Money that is paid directly into the court is returned as long as the defendant fully complies with all the conditions of their bond. Defendants all have the right to be represented by an attorney in Bond Court. A lawyer can help pursued the judge to set a lower bond, which may save a significant amount of fees in the event that a bail bondsman is used to post the deposit with the court. In serious felony cases it is almost always a good idea to retain an attorney to appear on the Defendant's behalf at bond court. Our attorneys are available to appear in Bond Court anywhere in South Carolina, even in emergency situations.

Preliminary Hearing

Defendants who have cases pending in General Sessions are eligible to request a preliminary hearing. This must be done within ten days of the Bond Court date. A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing conducted in front of a magistrate judge. The judge will determine if it is more likely than not that a crime occurred, and more likely than not that the defendant is the one responsible.

We believe that our client's interest is best served by having a true adversarial hearing where a genuine challenge is made. Preliminary hearings are not only a chance to challenge arrests, but also to have the investigator go “on the record” regarding what was, and wasn’t done, as part of the police investigation. This can be powerful information later on that can significantly aid the defense.

For this reason, if we are timely retained we will submit the request for the preliminary hearing and will represent our client at such hearing as part of our standard defense services. At the end of the preliminary hearing the judge can either allow the charges to continue to General Sessions for prosecution, modify them, or dismiss the case for lack of evidence. Regardless of the decision made by the court at this stage, the Solicitor’s office is still allowed to prosecute the case if they so choose.

Initial Appearance

Defendants who have cases prosecuted in General Sessions will be given a first court appearance at Bond Court. This is called a first appearance in most counties. At the first appearance they defendant will check in with the prosecutor's office, and then will be given a date to return called a follow up appearance. An initial appearance is also called a First Appearance. The initial appearance is not a hearing date or a trial date. Defendants will not be appearing in front of a judge and will not be required to enter a plea or explain the circumstances of their arrest.

Everyone charged with a General Sessions offense should have retainer a lawyer prior to their initial appearance date. Usually the initial appearance can be handled in 30-45 minutes. In some counties defendants can avoid having to go to their initial appearance if they have retained a lawyer. Appearances cannot currently be waived in Lexington or Richland Counties, but this may be possible in Spartanburg or Charleston.

Magistrate \ Municipal Court Procedures

Misdemeanor cases prosecuted in Magistrate or Municipal Courts are handled differently than those in General Sessions. The initial date provided in Bond Court or written on a ticket is a trial date. Defendants who appear in court on that date are going to be expected to either plead guilty or face a trial by the judge (called a bench trial) right away. In most all cases we do not believe that our clients should plead guilty or face a bench trial at their initial court date.

By doing so defendants give up important legal rights, including the right to pre-trial discovery, and many other criminal defense techniques that can help result in a more favorable outcome to the charges. Typically, we will notify the court and prosecutor on our client's behalf in advance of their court date that we are contesting and challenging the charges. This will result in the first court date being cancelled. Our client will not be required to appear. This procedure is authorized by the South Carolina Supreme Court and is approved by every bail bondsman.

At the same time, we file the notice of a contested case, will also file motions related to pre-trial discovery to obtain the evidence against our client. We also may file motions seeking to suppress (or disallow) evidence against our client such as drugs discovered by improper law enforcement techniques. The next event is usually a pre-trial conference, held months after the initial "bench trial date." Here, without the threat of an imminent trial, we can discuss having the case resolved with the prosecutor such as a dismissal, plea bargain, or referral into pre-trial intervention (PTI). Otherwise the case can be scheduled later for a full trial.

Criminal Trial

All defendants in South Carolina who are charged with any criminal or traffic offense are entitled to a fully contested trial. We normally try all criminal cases in front of a jury. All jurors must unanimously determine the verdict. There are twelve jurors in General Sessions cases and six in Magistrate or Municipal Court cases. Cases are not normally scheduled for trial for several months or more after the initial arrest. Defendants have numerous important rights at their trial, and in fact have more rights than the prosecutor or the judge. One of the roles of a defense attorney during the trial is to ensure that those rights are enforced, and that the court and the jury are given reasons why the charges should either be dismissed, or a not-guilty verdict should be returned.

Other steps

There are numerous other parts of the process that we can review with you during your initial consultation.

These include:

  • Pre-Trial Discovery – How we obtain the prosecutor's evidence in advance of trial and use it to prepare an effective defense
  • Negotiations – In some cases it can be possible to negotiate a reduction in charges or sentence, to avoid having to go to trial.
  • Preliminary Motions – There can be occasions where it is necessary to have additional court hearings related to legal issues that can arise during a case. This might include motions to reduce bond, to resolve discovery disputes with the prosecutor, enforce subpoenas issued, or to suppress evidence against our client.
  • Appeals – Anyone convicted of a crime in South Carolina has a right to appeal. This right pertains to all types of charges, from simple traffic infractions to major felonies. We can discuss this right, including appeals in Federal Court if necessary.

Contact Us Today

As you can see, there are many steps involved in defending a South Carolina criminal charge. By taking advantage of the legal procedures available you can position your case in the way to give you the best chance at a favorable outcome. Delays in seeking legal representation can sometimes result in lost opportunities that can lead to unfair and unjust results. We offer free initial consultations to anyone under investigation for or charged with a criminal offense in South Carolina.

To schedule your appointment contact our office today. Although we are located in downtown Lexington, we accept cases throughout South Carolina including Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston and Columbia.


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