In the Commonwealth of Kentucky there are four courts that hear criminal trial matters: State District Court, State Circuit Court, State Juvenile Court, and Federal District Court. Which court the case will be in depends upon the type of case, and potentially, how far along the case is. This artcle focuses on defending adult criminal cases in Kentucky District and Circuit Courts. It is also useful for those defending a Youthful Offender Juvenile case that has been transferred to adult Circuit Court. This article does not attempt to cover the specifics of juvenile or federal courts, though a future volume may address them.
Kentucky District Court Criminal Cases
Kentucky District Courts are the lowest level trial court in Kentucky. They are courts of limited jurisdiction and can only hear certain matters. These include: violations of county ordinances, traffic infractions, misdemeanor cases, and felony preliminary hearings.
Kentucky has 60 judicial districts, and each county has its own physical district court (and with a few exceptions two). There are 116 judges that sit on the district court benches for the various counties. Judges are selected by election, and they serve four-year terms.
If you are defending a misdemeanor case it will be heard and tried in district court. Many times, though not always, felony cases start out in district court at the preliminary hearing stage.
Misdemeanor Cases in District Court
The District Court has jurisdiction to hear misdemeanor cases that involve fineable offenses and offenses that can receive up to twelve months in jail. A District Court will handle all misdemeanors for the entire trial process: arraignment, pretrial conferences, trial, and sentencing. Appeals of decisions made in District Court are heard by that county’s Circuit Court.
Misdemeanor cases are prosecuted by the County Attorney for that County. County Attorneys are elected and serve four year terms.
Arraignment in District Court
Arraignment is the formal reading of charges against a person. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you may be able to waive your appearance if a criminal defense attorney appears on your behalf. If you are charged with a felony, your appearance is mandatory. At arraignment, you will enter a plea—most commonly “not guilty” though in some instances a defendant may accept an offer or enter a diversion program from the arraignment docket. The District Court lacks jurisdiction to enter a guilty plea at arraignment, so the Court will always enter a “not guilty” plea in a felony case.
In most counties, misdemeanors will be set for a pretrial conference and felonies will be set for a preliminary hearing, as discussed below.
Pretrial Conferences in District Court
A pretrial conference is an opportunity to negotiate your case with the County attorney. In some cases they will make an offer and the defendant will accept it. Other times the case will be continued, typically for the government to produce some evidence to the defendant. In misdemeanor cases, the defendant’s presence can be waived, though check with your criminal defense attorney to find out whether the your judge will allow this.
Misdemeanor Trial in Kentucky District Court
Whole book have been written on the subject of trial. This article will not go into depth about trial or trial strategy. There are two types of trials held in a District Court criminal case: a bench trial or a jury trial. It will be up to your criminal defense attorney to decide which is better for your situation. In a bench trial, the judge hears evidence and determines your guilt. In a jury trial, six members of the community hear the evidence, determine your guilt, and make a recommendation on punishment. Most commonly criminal defense attorneys choose to have jury trials, though in some cases a bench trial may be advantageous.
Felony Cases in District Court
Any offense that carries over twelve months in jail is, by Kentucky law, a felony, and must be heard by the Circuit Court. However, the District Court has limited jurisdiction to hold a preliminary hearing in a felony case. If a defendant is in custody, on a felony charge, and has not been indicted by the grand jury, the District Court must hold a preliminary hearing within ten days after arraignment to determine whether there is probable cause to continue to hold the defendant. If the defendant has bonded out, the District Court must hold a preliminary hearing within twenty days, to determine whether the defendant’s bond should continue to be held. Preliminary hearings will be discussed in fuller detail in another section.
Preliminary Hearings in District Court
At the preliminary hearing, the government must present evidence that establishes probable cause that a felony crime was committed by the defendant. Probable cause has been defined as “a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true”. As applied to the determination of the District Court, at the preliminary hearing, the District Court judge reviews the government’s evidence to determine whether there is enough evidence to meet the probable cause standard.
If the District Court finds that the government’s evidence is lacking, the defendant can be held to answer for a lesser charge (a misdemeanor or violation), or discharged entirely from bail, depending upon the circumstances of the case. If the District Court finds that the government’s evidence is sufficient (most commonly the case), then the defendant is held on bond pending the meeting of the grand jury.
Under the rules of Criminal Procedure, the grand jury must indict the defendant within sixty days, or the defendant is discharged from bond and either released from custody, or their money is refunded. An attorney or pro se defendant is required to file a motion (or agreed order, check your county’s local practice), in order for the defendant to be discharged. If does not happen automatically. Also, look closely at the time rules in the Rules of Criminal Procedure. If the sixtieth day falls on a weekend, the actual deadline for indictment will be on the Monday following the weekend.
It is important to note that this is not a statute of limitations. Just because a defendant is discharged under the sixty-day rule does not mean the case is dismissed or cannot be indicted. The defendant is merely discharged from the obligation to post bond. Many times, it can be an extreme inconvenience to the defendant to be discharged from bond on the sixty-day rule. The government may well turn around the next week and indict the defendant, leading to an arrest warrant and a requirement to post a (potentially higher) bond. It is not always prudent to file sixty-day rule motions.
Kentucky Circuit Court Criminal Cases
Kentucky has 57 Circuit Courts and 95 circuit judges. Circuits can cover anywhere from one to four different counties. Many Circuits have multiple judges or divisions. The Circuit Court has jurisdiction over capital offenses (death penalty cases), felony cases, and misdemeanors that are part of the same indictment as a felony offense. Circuit Court judges are elected and serve eight year terms.
Felony cases in Circuit Court are prosecuted by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for that Judicial District. Commonwealth’s Attorneys are elected and serve six year terms.
Felony Cases in Circuit Court
The Circuit Court will handle felony cases at the trial level from the time after indictment until sentencing. Not all felony cases go through the District Court—the government can chose to “directly indict” a case by presenting it to the grand jury, rather than charge the felony and go through the District Court process. This procedure is common in some counties and rare in others. Ultimately, it is up to the discretion of the elected County and Commonwealth’s attorney to make this determination.
Arraignment in Circuit Court
Once indicted a case will be arraigned. This is an opportunity to enter a plea—almost always “not guilty”; though in some cases a “rapid disposition” or “rocket docket” agreement will be entered and the defendant will plead guilty at arraignment. Practitioners would do well to be careful of these types of pleas. They are not necessarily a bad idea, but waiving the right to receive discovery (the evidence against the defendant) could, in some cases, be perceived as ineffective assistance of counsel. Ultimately, the decision whether to accept a rapid disposition or “rocket docket” should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Many times these are great offers and worth waiving the right to discovery, but it does not follow that one should say “yes” to the first opportunity to plead guilty. Especially when one doesn’t know the strength of the government’s case.
In some jurisdictions, a trial date will be set at arraignment in Circuit Court. This is the exception to the rule, however. Most courts set either a Status Hearing or Pretrial Conference date for counsel to return on and for the government to have provided discovery.
Status Hearing/Pretrial Conference in Circuit Court
Courts sometimes use Status Hearing or Pretrial conference interchangeably. In most courts, it is a date for the Court to inquire about the status of the case—will the defendant enter a plea, are there evidentiary issues, is the case ready to be set for trial? In some jurisdictions, a pretrial conference is different than a status hearing. It is an opportunity for the lawyers to meet to discuss the case and for the government to make an offer for a guilty plea. These jurisdictions may also hold status hearings to meet with the judge.
Trial in Circuit Court
Trial in Circuit Court is similar to District Court, though the stakes are obviously much higher. One of the major differences is the fact that a Circuit jury is typically made up of twelve jurors rather than six in District Court. Trial is what people think of when they think of Court—opening statements, questioning witnesses, viewing evidence, and closing argument. Much can be said on this subject and will be focused on in another article.
Guilty Pleas in Circuit Court
A defendant can enter a plea agreement or plea bargain in Kentucky Circuit Court. If they choose to do so, there is paperwork required to be filled out. Almost every judicial Circuit has a different form they use, so your criminal defense attorney should be mindful to check with the local Circuit Court Clerk to ensure that they use the correct form. At the guilty plea the defendant will be asked many questions, some biographical, some about the crime they are pleading guilty to. A criminal defense attorney should have their client well prepared to discuss their crime in the best light possible, while being honest and accepting responsibility.
Alford Pleas in Circuit Court
Sometimes a defendant will not want to admit guilt, but will still want to take advantage of a plea bargain rather than risk more severe punishment at trial. In this case, the defendant can enter an “Alford plea”. In an Alford plea a defendant does not admit guilt, but does stipulate that there is sufficient evidence that they could be found guilty. By law it is treated the same way as a guilty plea.
Sentencing in Kentucky Circuit Court
Sentencing is the opportunity for the judge to set the sentence for the defendant. Options range from diversion, conditional discharge, probation, county jail time, home incarceration time, prison time, or a combination of the options. Prior to sentencing, a defendant will complete a presentencing interview “PSI” with the Department of Probation and Parole. This is the packet of information that Probation and Parole provides to the judge for the judge to make a decision on the defendant’s sentence. It includes biographical information, substance abuse history, prior criminal record, and many other things. Your criminal defense attorney should assist you in preparing for the interview with Probation and Parole to make sure you include all relevant information for the judge.
A criminal defense lawyer would be wise to argue on behalf of their client in a “motion for probation” or “alternative sentencing plan”, filed prior to sentencing. A savvy criminal defense lawyer will know the judges preferences and will be able to craft a plan that hopefully satisfies the judge as sufficient punishment for the crime.
At the actual sentencing hearing, the criminal defense lawyer and the defendant will have the opportunity to address the court. This opportunity should be taken. A talented criminal defense lawyer can advocate powerfully on behalf of their client. A good sentencing argument can make the difference between probation and prison. It is also a good idea in many cases for the defendant to take responsibility for their crime and show genuine remorse when addressing the Court. Your lawyer can help prepare you for the difficult act of speaking on your own behalf under the high-pressure of the court room. The defendant should be honest and truthful. In the best cases, true remorse can make a difference in the outcome of the case as well.
Need Answers Or Legal Help?
This post is meant to be a short introduction to the Kentucky Criminal Trial Process. It is not in-depth, but offers many of the high points. Should you have any further questions, our attorneys are available to help.
Furthermore, if you are a defendant in a criminal case, misdemeanor or felony, you need a Kentucky criminal defense attorney that knows the process inside out. Our team of criminal defense attorneys at Baldani Law Group have extensive experience in and out of the courtroom to help secure you the result you need in your case. Please call (859) 259-0727 or contact us online for a free consultation today.