Tennessee Criminal Justice System

Transcript of “Tennessee Criminal Justice System”

Author: Steven Oberman

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Originally Posted: April 13, 2011

I am frequently told by defendants and their families that they just don’t understand the criminal court system. That’s probably because unless you have had some exposure to the system or read about it in law school, you wouldn’t have had an opportunity to study how our system works. Well, today I’d like to provide you with an introduction to the criminal justice procedures. This is your host, Steve Oberman, and what I am about to explain to you is accurate for Tennessee cases, but many states follow a slightly different system. I want to caution you once again that this is only general advice. You should consult a lawyer licensed in your state for specific advice. Now, let’s get started…

Once the defendant has been released from jail they will likely have a court appearance called an arraignment. (By the way, don’t forget to listen to our episode on getting out of jail!) Usually an arraignment occurs after release, but if the defendant has been in jail long enough, it may have occurred while they were in jail – either in person or by some technology, such as a video conference. In any event, three important things occur at the arraignment.

The judge will:

  1. Make sure the defendant is aware of the charges that have beenbrought against them;
  2. Confirm the defendant has a lawyer who will be representing them later on; and
  3. Set another court date when hopefully the case will be concluded. At least that’s the theory. Most of the time the case is postponed at least once beyond the original court date.

In Tennessee, the case will likely still be in General Sessions Court – let’s just refer to it as Sessions Court. This is the lowest level court in Tennessee. Larger counties have multiple divisions of this court usually based on the arresting law enforcement agency or the type of crime involved. For instance, in Knox County, where my office is located, we have one division of Sessions Court that is devoted to handling DUI cases. There are two assistant District Attorneys assigned to that division who are specially trained to prosecute DUI cases.

Once we get to court, one of three things is going to happen, and I want to explain each of these three options to you.

The first option is called a Preliminary Hearing, and that’s the only option to which you have a right. At that Preliminary Hearing, the prosecution will present its proof first. Usually the officer will come in and testify that, in his opinion, the ability to drive was reduced below normal as the result of an intoxicant or combination of intoxicants. If a chemical test was taken, such as breath or blood, then the prosecution will try to introduce those test results to show that the blood alcohol level was 0.08 percent or more.

After the officer testifies, the defense lawyer has the opportunity to cross-examine the officer. That means we get to ask a lot of questions—very pointed questions. Remember, I told you the prosecution was eliciting the officer’s opinion that the defendant was under the influence. What we want to do is to review each fact upon which the officer based his opinion and show, for instance, that any bad driving may have been caused by a reason other than intoxication; that the field sobriety tests given to the driver were inappropriate due to physical limitations; that the instructions for the field sobriety tests were incorrect; that the tests were not scored correctly, and sometimes even that the location was inappropriate for the test. For instance, if they were conducted on a steep hill.

So what happens after we cross-examine the police officer?

The defendant then has the right to present proof on their behalf. That means the driver could testify, but we don’t normally do that at a preliminary hearing. What proof is more likely is the testimony of a witness who had contact with the driver before the arrest, or an expert witness to rebut the field sobriety test evidence or the chemical test evidence.

After both sides have had an opportunity to present their proof and rebuttal proof, each side will argue their case to attempt to persuade the judge to rule in their favor. Ultimately the judge will decide, “Is the defendant probably guilty?” If the Judge decides the defendant is probably guilty, then the case is sent to the next level – that’s called the Grand Jury.

But if the Court believes the defendant is not probably guilty, the case will be dismissed, but that doesn’t mean it is over. If it is dismissed after the preliminary hearing, the prosecution still has the right to take it to the Grand Jury anyway. That’s why I am reluctant to present a lot of proof at a preliminary hearing.

Now, the Grand Jury is a group of 13 people who meet in secret. They usually will not discuss the case with the defendant or the defense lawyer but just the state’s witnesses and the prosecutor. Then, they will decide if the defendant is probably guilty. Well, since they only hear half the story, they typically decide that the defendant is probably guilty, and they draft a document called an indictment. The indictment is just the formal charge against the defendant, and that sends the case onto Criminal Court.

In Criminal Court, the defendant has many more rights. It is much more formal. The defendant has the right to a trial, for instance. The defendant also has the right to a jury, and a lot of other rights given by law.

The major difference between a hearing and a trial is what we call the burden of proof, and by that I mean, how much does the State have to prove in order to win the case. Remember, at the preliminary hearing, I told you that the State just had to show that the defendant was probably guilty, but at a trial they have to prove much more. They have to prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that requires more proof.

Now, let’s review the other options in Sessions Court.

The second option in Sessions Court is a trial. That happens less frequently because the prosecution has to agree to have a trial in Sessions Court, and they may not want to do that. So that leads us to the third option.

The third option is what’s called a Plea Agreement. A plea agreement, in theory, means the defendant pleads guilty to an offense in return for knowing what the penalty is ahead of time. The best way to get a good plea agreement is by convincing the prosecution that they are going to lose.

So the prosecutors review their case. They look to see how effective their witnesses will be. They will review the video recording carefully, assuming one exists. They will consider the experience and expertise of the defense lawyer. They will try to determine the effectiveness of the defense witnesses. And, there are other factors they consider.

Basically, the prosecution just doesn’t want to waste their time and effort on a case they can’t win. You should be aware that a plea agreement can take place either in Sessions Court or in Criminal Court.

I hope that you enjoyed this podcast and now have a better understanding about court procedures in the criminal justice system. Of course, some details and variations have been excluded from this explanation due to time limitations, but you may always call an attorney to discuss the situation further. If a lawyer has not yet been hired, please call our office as soon as possible. Whether our office or another lawyer is hired, the chances of success increase greatly if an attorney is involved within the first week after the arrest.

We hope you enjoyed listening to the DUI law podcast1 produced by the Oberman and Rice Law Firm. You may read about related legal matter on our websites at https://tndui.com/ andhttp://www.duiknoxville.com or visit our blog at http://www.tnduicenter.com. You may also speak to one of our lawyers by calling (865) 249-7200. Until next time, remember to drive safely.

Portions of this podcast were taken from Mr. Oberman’s text, DUI: The Crime and Consequences, Published by West/Thomson Reuters, 2011.See https://www.tndui.com/oberman-dui-textbooks#tndui

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