How Criminal Cases Work
How Adult Criminal Cases Work:
Misdemeanor cases are filed and tried in Denver County Court. Most felony cases begin in County Court but are tried in Denver District Court. In some instances, instead of being considered first in County Court, the most serious felony charges are filed directly in District Court, or as the result of a grand jury indictment. If misdemeanor and felony charges are both included in a case, and the case is bound over or direct-filed into District Court, the misdemeanor charges are tried along with the felony charges in District Court.
Click here for a PDF flow chart of the main steps in the criminal justice process.
The criminal process begins with the crime, a violation of a criminal law, and the subsequent investigation or arrest of someone for that crime. It is the responsibility of local law enforcement (in Denver, the Denver Police Department) to investigate crimes and arrest suspects.
Arrest is the taking into custody a person in order to detain him or her to answer for a criminal charge. A police officer may arrest a person if the officer has an arrest warrant, or if the person committed a crime in the officer’s presence, or the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime.
A person who has been arrested is taken to the Denver City Jail (the Van Cise-Simonet Downtown Detention Center) at 490 W Colfax Ave, where they are “booked” into the criminal legal system.
Bond (or bail) is the amount of money, in cash or secured by property or surety (a third-party guarantor of the amount) required by the court to ensure that a person released from custody after arrest will appear at all future court dates. A personal recognizance bond (unsecured, no cash required) may also be ordered, which releases a person from custody based on that person’s word that they will return to court.
Bond is set by a judge, not the police or the district attorney, and is typically set at (1st) advisement.
The Colorado Constitution guarantees the right of any person arrested to have bond set (with certain limited but important exceptions, such as a person accused of murder)—the right to a hearing to determine the bond and the conditions for release from custody pending trial. This does not mean a defendant has the right to be released on bond from custody until their case has been concluded, only the right to have bond set.
If a defendant cannot post bond (make bail) they remain in custody. If a defendant violates conditions set by the judge that must be followed in order to remain out on bond, the bond can be revoked and the defendant returned to custody until disposition of their case.
There are two ways to file charges to start a criminal case.
1) No Arrest
A police officer serves someone with a misdemeanor “Summons and Complaint” listing the criminal charges, which the officer files directly with the Court. The first appearance of the defendant will be Arraignment and the court date to appear is listed on the Summons and Complaint.
A person can be arrested for a misdemeanor or felony crime.
In misdemeanor cases, a police officer serves someone with a “Summons and Complaint” listing the criminal charges and arrests the person.
In felony cases, the police can arrest a person on an “investigatory hold” and write a report summarizing the events leading up to the arrest, and send their report and investigation to the District Attorney’s Office for consideration of filing of charges. The District Attorney’s Office then decides whether to file criminal charges, and what those charges should be. Sometimes charges are filed before the defendant has been arrested. In these cases, the defendant is said to be “At Large” until he or she is arrested.
The District Attorney’s Office must generally file charges within three business days of the arrest when the defendant is in custody, although an extension of time can be granted by the court.
The charges filed by the District Attorney are listed in a written statement filed with a court, called a “Complaint and Information,” “Complaint,” or “Information.”
If a person is arrested for a misdemeanor or felony, the defendant will appear for Advisement in the County Courtrooms at the City Jail (Van Cise-Simonet Downtown Detention Center), 490 W. Colfax Ave.
“1st Advisement” is the first time an arrested person is brought to court and takes place very soon after an arrest. The District Attorney’s Office has typically not yet filed charges. This is a short hearing in which the judge advises a suspect of the charges for which the suspect is being investigated, and their rights, including the right to a public defender, if eligible. The judge sets bond at this time.
“2nd Advisement” occurs after the District Attorney’s Office files charges. During this hearing, the judge advises the defendant of the formal charges filed against them. The judge may also hear arguments to change the bond and therefore this hearing is sometimes referred to as a “bond hearing,” although a bond hearing can also be subsequently held. A date is set for the next court appearance.
Arraignment (aka Advisement) County Court
If there is no arrest and a person receives a misdemeanor Summons and Complaint, the defendant appears in court for the first time for Arraignment (not to be confused with Arraignment in felony cases) in County courtrooms in the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, 520 W. Colfax Avenue (across the street from the City Jail). At Arraignment, the judge informs the defendant what the charges are, what their constitutional rights are, what possible penalties they face if convicted, and the right to apply for a public defender, if eligible. Some defendants may also have the opportunity to plead guilty at this hearing.
Plea and Setting/County Court
For misdemeanor cases, this is a hearing in County Court after Arraignment at which a defendant pleads guilty or not guilty and the judge sets the case for trial.
Disposition Hearing/County Court
After charges are filed, and a defendant has pleaded not guilty, a disposition hearing is typically scheduled at which the judge and lawyers may talk about how the case can be resolved without going to trial, and at which the defendant may change their plea to guilty or no contest through a plea agreement.
Preliminary Hearing/County Court
With some felony charges, the next court date after Advisement may be a preliminary hearing. With few exceptions, only persons charged with a class 1, 2, or 3 felony, or who are in jail on a class 4, 5, or 6 felony, are entitled to this hearing. The defendant may waive a preliminary hearing.
At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor is required to present sufficient evidence to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the charged crime, allowing the case to proceed to trial. The defendant may waive a preliminary hearing.
If the judge determines sufficient evidence exists, the felony case will be “bound over” to District Court for arraignment.
Felony Preliminary and Disposition hearings are often combined into one hearing when scheduled in County Court.
Note on Direct File Cases and Grand Jury Indictments
If a case is filed directly in District Court, or by Grand Jury indictment, the County Court series of hearings are bypassed and the defendant will have advisement, arraignment, preliminary and disposition hearings in District Court at the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse.
If a felony case is bound over from County Court, the first hearing in District Court is Arraignment. At Arraignment, the judge informs the defendant what the charges are, what his or her constitutional rights are, what all the possible penalties are, and the right to a public defender, if eligible. At Arraignment, the defendant may enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, or enter a guilty plea to an agreed upon plea bargain.
The Arraignment and all subsequent court hearings in District Court are held in the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse.
Disposition & Motion Hearings/District Court
While disposition hearings for many felony cases are held (often in conjunction with the preliminary hearing) in County Court after charges are filed, a disposition hearing can also be scheduled in District Court after arraignment. Motion hearings, at which a court will hear arguments on oral or written requests for a ruling on a particular legal point or issue related to the criminal case, are also scheduled prior to trial.
Pre-Trial Conference/District Court
A meeting between the prosecutor, the defendant or his attorney and the court to resolve issues prior to trial so that the parties and the court are better prepared for trial. The parties might also discuss a plea bargain.
Misdemeanor trials are held in County Court, felony trials in District Court—all are held in courtrooms at the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse, 520 W. Colfax Ave.
If the defendant pleads not guilty, and the case is not otherwise resolved by dismissal, guilty plea, or plea bargain, the next step in the process is a jury trial or trial to the court (bench trial). A defendant has the right to demand a jury trial for misdemeanor and felony crimes and can request a jury trial for petty offenses and municipal ordinance violations.
The trial may be preceded by hearings on motions. A defendant may plead guilty at any point of the prosecution process, including up to and during a trial.
If the defendant is found not guilty (“acquitted”) the case is dismissed and the defendant is free. A finding of not guilty is not the same as a finding of innocence. It simply means that the judge or jury was not convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The arrest will still show on the defendant’s record, along with the acquittal.
If a jury is unable to reach a verdict (called a “hung jury”) and a mistrial is declared by the judge, the case may be re-tried if the prosecution so chooses.
If the defendant is found guilty by plea or jury/judge verdict, then he or she is said to be convicted of the charges.
Once a defendant is convicted, the next step is sentencing. Sentencing can occur immediately but is usually scheduled for another date several weeks later. It is a judge's responsibility to sentence the defendant, and requiring the defendant return for sentencing at a later date allows the judge to gather additional information through a Pre-Sentencing Investigation (PSI) before the sentencing decision is made.
Crime victims and their family members may speak at the sentencing hearing. The defendant may address the court and people may speak on his or her behalf. The judge hears from the prosecutor and defense attorney and then imposes the sentence.
How Juvenile Criminal Cases Work
Juveniles are defined as persons between the age of 10 and 18. If a child under the age of 10 commits a crime, he or she may be referred to the Denver Department of Human Services for further intervention.
The juvenile justice process differs from the adult criminal justice process in a number of ways. While the adult criminal justice system is designed to be punitive, the juvenile process focuses on the best interest of the child.
Juveniles charged with a crime are prosecuted in Juvenile Court, a division of the Denver District Court.
Additionally, juvenile cases are typically decided in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months or even years in adult court.
Juvenile Courtroom Locations
Juvenile hearings and proceedings are held in the juvenile courtrooms located on the second floor of the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse in downtown Denver, 520 W. Colfax Avenue.
To find out which courtroom your case or proceeding is being heard, you can contact the Juvenile Court Clerk’s Office in Room 125 at the Courthouse, or by calling 720-337-0570.
Juveniles who are arrested in Denver are transported to the Juvenile Services Center (JSC) located at 303 W. Colfax Ave. At the JSC, staff conducts an initial review of the juvenile and contacts the parents or guardians to inform them of the arrest. Based upon the staff review, the nature of the crime, and the juvenile’s history, a determination will be made as to whether a juvenile will be released on Pre-Trial Release (PTR) or taken to detention.
The juvenile detention facility in Denver is the Gilliam Youth Services Center (GYSC) located at 2844 Downing Street.
Juveniles who are being held in custody at the Gilliam Youth Services Center (GYSC) are entitled to a detention hearing. This hearing is typically held within two business days after arrest. At this hearing, a judge or magistrate will make a determination as to whether probable cause for arrest exists and will also make a decision about bond.
Parents of the juvenile are notified of the hearing and are requested to attend. If a parent is unable to attend, the judge or magistrate will appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL). This person is appointed to represent the best interests of the child and will stand in for the parent. The Public Defender is also present at detention hearings and is available to take applications to represent a juvenile. Victims or their family members may also be present at the detention hearing, and can get more information about the case by calling the Denver DA's Office—Juvenile Unit, at 720-913-9012.
The judge or magistrate will make a decision about bond for the juvenile. There are some cases in which a juvenile is held at Gilliam without bond, such as when there is reason to believe the juvenile may be a danger to themselves or others. The judge may release the juvenile on Pre-Trial Release (PTR) under the supervision of staff. In most cases, either a bond amount is set or the juvenile is granted a PTR.
If the juvenile is granted a Pre-Trial Release, he or she will be required to follow certain rules and may be placed on an electronic home monitor (EHM) to ensure he or she is abiding by curfew.
The District Attorney's Office has approximately three business days from the time of the detention hearing to file charges; otherwise the case is dismissed. Charges may still be filed at a later date if new information or evidence is developed.
Return of Filing
This is a hearing where the juvenile is advised of the charges filed against him or her. If no charges are filed, the case is dismissed. If charges are filed the juvenile is served with a Petition listing the charges and a preliminary hearing or a status hearing is scheduled.
Certain charges entitle a juvenile to a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, the District Attorney must provide a judge with enough evidence for the court to make a determination that there is probable cause to bind the case over as charged. These hearings are often waived by the juvenile, which keeps the plea negotiation process open. The case may also be set for trial.
A status hearing is a hearing in which the attorney for the juvenile and the District Attorney may discuss possible resolutions, or the juvenile may plead guilty or not guilty, or the case may be set for trial.
Most of the juvenile criminal trials that take place in Denver are trials to the court (also known as “trial to the bench”). This means that the case is heard by a judge rather than a jury.
A trial to the court must be held within 60 days after the juvenile's plea of not guilty. Juveniles are entitled to a trial by jury in certain felony cases. For these cases, a trial must occur within six months after a not guilty plea.
Juveniles Tried As Adults
In rare felony criminal cases, a juvenile is charged as an adult, and faces adult criminal penalties, through one of two processes: “Direct file,” in which adult charges are filed directly in District Court, or “transfer,” in which charges are filed in Juvenile Court but a motion is filed by the District Attorney to request a transfer of the case to District Court.
Expungement of Juvenile Records
Juvenile records remain accessible even if the case is closed, or dismissed, unless the Court has signed an Order of Expungement of Records. This Order directs the Court to expunge a juvenile’s record, which means that the juvenile, the agency and the Court may properly indicate that no record exists.