The Courtroom

Overview of the Criminal Justice System

Stages of Criminal Prosecution

The position of District Attorney General is charged by the Constitution of the State of Tennessee with the duty to prosecute all offenses committed in violation of the state laws of Tennessee. All violations of the state laws are set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1989. These laws became effective November 1, 1989 and are divided into five (5) classes of felony offenses and three (3) classes of misdemeanor offenses. A felony is any offense for which the punishment may be imprisonment of at least one (1) year or more. In Davidson County, persons who receive a felony sentence of six (6) years or less are incarcerated locally, where the trial court retains the power to modify their sentence. This would include suspending the sentence and placing the inmate/defendant on probation. A misdemeanor is any offense, the maximum punishment for which is eleven (11) months and twenty-nine (29) days in the County Jail.

There are a number of ways a criminal prosecution may begin. The first step is for a person to commit some type of activity which appears to be in violation of the law. The person will typically be either arrested by an officer who apprehends the person during the commission of the offense, or the person will be arrested after a warrant has been issued. An officer may arrest a person who commits any offense in their presence, or where the officer has probable cause to believe the person has committed a felony, although not in the officer’s presence. Probable Cause is a legal term which basically means that there is at least a fifty-one (51) percent probability that the person did what he or she is accused of. This standard of proof is for the issuance of warrants (including search warrants), for preliminary hearings, and for determining whether a person should be placed on trial in Criminal Court, as will be discussed further below. The other significant term concerning standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Reasonable Doubt is the standard applied in trials and is basically defined as a doubt that will not let the mind rest easy with the certainty of guilt, although mathematical certainty of guilt is not required.

An Arrest Warrant is a written document charging a person with the commission of some criminal offense. A warrant will not be issued unless there is probable cause presented to the issuing magistrate that the person has indeed committed the offense. A Magistrate is an official who has power to issue a warrant for the arrest of a person charged with a public offense. Magistrates include judges of the Supreme Court, Circuit and Criminal Courts, Judicial Commissioners, and General Sessions Court Judges, as well as certain mayors and city recorders.

Judicial Commissioners are appointed by General Sessions Court Judges to set bonds and sign arrest warrants at night or in the absence of the General Sessions Court Judges. Appointments as Night Commissioners may not be for longer than four (4) years. Night Commissioners are somewhat unique to Nashville. The Night Commissioners typically hold court in the Downtown Detention Center and are the ones who are on the bench when the arrested persons are brought into Court for their initial appearance. This office presently does not have any Assistant District Attorneys assigned to night duty.

General Sessions Court Judges are popularly elected  for eight (8) year terms, the most recent term having begun September 1, 2014. Criminal jurisdiction is limited to hearing misdemeanor cases on the merits and determining guilt or innocence. The General Sessions Court also conducts preliminary hearings to determine whether there is probable cause to hold the person over to the action of the Grand Jury. The General Sessions Court may only conduct a preliminary hearing in a felony case. A person charged with a misdemeanor has the option of requesting a preliminary hearing or, with the consent of the State, resolving the case at the General Sessions level. General Sessions Court has civil jurisdiction to hear cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $25,000.

An arrested person has the right to have a Preliminary Hearing within fourteen (14) days if they are in custody. These hearings are held on what is called the Jail Docket, which is held daily at the A. A. Birch Criminal Justice Building with one of the General Sessions Judges presiding. A person charged with a misdemeanor has the option of requesting a preliminary hearing, or, with the consent of the State, resolving the case at the General Sessions level. The General Sessions Judges alternate sitting on the Jail and Bond Dockets. Jail Dockets for Misdemeanor and Felony cases are held daily and are in separate courts. Again, the General Sessions judges rotate among these courts. A defendant who has made bond is scheduled for a hearing on the Bond Docket.
The Grand Jury is a body of thirteen (13) citizens of Davidson County who meet to hear evidence of criminal activity in order to determine if there is probable cause to require the defendant to stand trial in Criminal Court. Cases reach the Grand Jury from having been Bound Over by the General Sessions Court or by having the cases presented directly to them by the District Attorney General’s Office. If the Grand Jury determines there is probable cause to require the person to stand trial, they will return either a True Bill of Indictment or a Presentment. These terms are practically synonymous. The legal distinction is that an indictment is returned when a person has been bound over from General Sessions Court and a presentment is returned when the case is directly presented to the Grand Jury. If the Grand Jury does not find probable cause it will then return a No True Bill of Indictment. There are numerous occasions when a case will be dismissed at the General Sessions Court level and will be presented to the Grand Jury by the District Attorney General’s Office. Presentments result in a capias (which is an arrest order) being issued to take the person into custody.

After the Grand Jury has returned an indictment or presentment the defendant will be brought into Criminal Court for arraignment. Arraignment is the initial appearance in the trial court where the person is formally advised of the charge(s) against him or her. If the defendant has not already hired an attorney, the Court will inquire as to whether he or she qualifies for an appointed attorney. If so, one will be appointed for the defendant before any further proceedings occur. At the present time, there are six (6) divisions or the Criminal Court of Davidson County. These Courts and their respective judges are:

Div. I – Judge Steve Dozier
Div. II – Judge Angelita Dalton
Div. III – Judge Cheryl Blackburn
Div. IV – Judge Jennifer Smith
Div. V – Judge Monte Watkins
Div. VI – Judge Mark Fishburn

Divisions I, II, III, and IV are located on the 6th floor of the A. A. Birch Building. Divisions V and VI are located on the 5th floor of the A. A. Birch Building. The Criminal Court Clerk’s Office is located on the 2nd floor of the A. A. Birch Building.

The next step in the criminal prosecution is that the case will be set on a discussion docket. At that time, if a plea agreement is reached, the Court will accept the defendant’s guilty plea and either sentence the person then or will defer it for six (6) weeks or so when a sentencing hearing will be held. A case that is not ultimately resolved will be set for trial. Mondays and Tuesdays are trial days. Wednesdays are typically arraignment days. Thursdays are discussion (settlement) days, and Fridays are usually reserved for hearings on motions, sentencing hearings and probation revocation hearings.

A defendant in Criminal Court has a right to a jury trial. The trial jury is composed of twelve (12) citizens who will hear the case and decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence based upon the “reasonable doubt” standard referred to previously. If the defendant is convicted he or she has the right to appeal the conviction to the Court of Criminal Appeals and then on to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court of Criminal Appeals is comprised of twelve (12) judges who sit in panels of three (3) in the three (3) Grand Divisions of the State. The Court of Criminal Appeals for the Middle Division of Tennessee is located in the Tennessee Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill. The Tennessee Supreme Court is located in the Supreme Court Building and is comprised of five (5) judges who likewise sit in the three (3) different divisions of the State. Tennessee is unique in that it is the only State which has a traveling Supreme Court.

A defendant who is convicted and is unsuccessful in his or her appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court thereafter has the right to file a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief in the Trial Court. These Petitions are typically filed by defendants who have received lengthy terms of imprisonment and are generally based upon the allegation that their original counsel was ineffective. A Post-Conviction Petition must be filed (with some exceptions) within a year of the last action on direct appeal. If the case was resolved by a guilty plea, the year begins to run thirty (30) from the date of the plea (or sentence if it is later). If the defendant loses on his or her Post-Conviction Petition, then he or she can go back to the Court of Criminal Appeals and to the Tennessee Supreme Court. After that the defendant may apply to the federal court system for relief.

The District Attorney General’s Office handles all General Sessions Court level prosecutions, all Trial Court level prosecutions, and Trial Court hearings on Petitions for Post-Conviction Relief. The Office of the Attorney General represents the State on all appeals, as well as all federal matters.

One other frequently used method of prosecution is the Criminal Information. An Information is simply an indictment by agreement. An Information is typically used when a defendant is in jail and does not want to wait for the case to work its way through the Grand Jury system. The Defendant will ask the District Attorney’s Office to prepare the necessary paperwork and will then plead guilty pursuant to a previously agreed upon disposition. Informations are prepared when the defendant is agreeable to entering a guilty plea and most often occur when the defendant is in custody.