Any court case can take a while to get resolved. Misdemeanors and felonies alike can take months or even years to process.
You may ask how long a felony case can stay open. Unfortunately, the answer to this is not straightforward. It depends on the crime, state, or even the specific courthouse.
You can read below to learn about the legal process for felony cases.
Why do Felony Cases Take so Long?
There are many factors that can extend legal proceedings. These include the nature of the crime, state laws, and courthouse ability.
For certain crimes, there will be more details and evidence involved. For example, a case of felony assault may process quicker than an in depth case of fraud. It depends on how much the court needs to discuss about the case.
States will also vary in how quick they process cases. In one state, a crime may be easy to pinpoint to a specific law. But, in another state, the legal team may need to dig through more statutes to understand the case.
One other reason comes down to courthouse availability. Some courthouses deal with many more cases on a daily basis than others. Some do not have the ability to process cases as fast as others. For instance, courthouses in big cities process many more cases than those in rural areas.
Statute of Limitations
The first component of how long a crime can take to get resolved is the statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is the amount of time after a crime occurs that a person can get arrested for it.
The length of a statute of limitations varies by state and by crime. Felony statutes often last for years or even decades. For others, there is no statute of limitations. This means that there is no time limit on when you can get arrested after committing the crime.
The first step in a felony trial is the arrest. If police catch you in the act, then they arrest you on the spot. If the crime is not seen by police, they will conduct an investigation.
When they do the investigation, they gather evidence linking you to the crime. When they have enough evidence, they will present it to a judge. A judge will then issue a warrant for your arrest.
Arrest warrants do not expire. In some cases, the statute of limitations may have passed. But, outstanding arrest warrants still do not expire in this instance.
When the police arrest you, they will first take you to the station for booking. This includes fingerprinting, a mug shot, and initial interview/questioning. They may then hold you at the station or take you to the county jail for holding.
The first step after you get arrested is the arraignment. This will occur shortly after arrest. This is where the judge will review the following items with you:
- Constitutional rights
- Date for the next court meeting
This includes any rights guaranteed to you by the US Constitution (Sixth Amendment). Some of these are the right to a public trial of your peers (jury), legal representation, witnesses, etc.
You can hire your own defense attorney. If you are not able to afford one, then the state will provide you one. A defense attorney who works for the state is a Public Defender.
At the arraignment, you can enter a plea, but you do not always need to do so. This will be either a “guilty” , “not guilty”, or “nolo contendre” plea. “Nolo contendre”, meaning no contest, is that you are not arguing the charge but also do not plead guilty.
This is money paid to the court to get released until your court date. Bail for felonies is much higher than for misdemeanors. A judge determines the bail amount.
Before your initial hearing, you will meet with your attorney and the court. Here, you may enter a plea bargain. This is taking a guilty plea for a lesser sentence or charge before having to go to trial.
This occurs within 10 days of the arraignment hearing for felony charges only.
At the preliminary hearing, you will meet with your attorney, the prosecutor, and the judge. The prosecutor will present evidence of your guilt. This is when the court settles on what charges they bring against you.
Arraignment in Trial Court
This is a repeat of the initial arraignment. So, the court will again read you your rights and discuss case details.
Pretrial Readiness Conference
This occurs 30 to 45 days after the arraignment in trial court. Here, you will meet with the judge, your attorney, and the prosecutor.
During the pretrial conference, you will discuss evidence and any unresolved issues. This is also your final chance to do a plea bargain and not have to go to trial.
This occurs between the pretrial conference and the jury trial. This is a chance for your attorney to challenge the prosecutor’s evidence.
This usually occurs a few weeks after the pretrial conference. This is when you meet with the judge, your attorney, prosecutor, and jury. You will discuss details of the case, charges, and evidence.
At the end of the trial, the jury will make a decision of guilty or not guilty. The judge will also then impose a sentence.
Jury trials can vary in how long they last. It depends on the evidence, witness testimony, jury discussion, among many other factors. In general, trials can take several days.
Your sentence will vary on several factors. First, the type of crime plays an important role in your sentence. There are five different classes of felonies and each has different sentence lengths. They range from A to E, with A being the most serious and E being the least.
At the very least, you are most likely looking at one year in prison. Felony sentences, though, can go up to life in prison or even the death penalty. Not every state carries the death penalty.
You may also receive time on probation or parole. Probation is instead of jail or prison time. Parole is an early release from your sentence. You would then serve the rest of your sentence on parole versus in prison.
There are rules associated with both probation and parole. They differ by case. Some rules can be keeping a clean record, getting a job, and not using any drugs or alcohol. You may also be drug tested on occasion.
These both depend on the charges and state laws. Parole is also dependent on your behavior in prison.
The second factor in determining your sentence is state laws. Some states have sentencing guidelines for certain crimes. These state the least and most amount of time that your sentence can be.
Third, mitigating factors will help to shorten your sentence. In the trial, you may present evidence about why you committed the crime. These could include mental health, self-defense, and more.
A fourth factor is judicial discretion. You might end up with a judge that is tougher or easier than others. Judges have the final say in your sentence length. Because of this, each judge may or may not give you a different sentence.
Other Factors in Felony Cases
Given the above information, felony proceedings may seem like a straightforward process. But, there are several factors that may increase the length of them.
For instance, there may be several hearings for different steps of the process. They may also get delayed for a variety of reasons.
There may also be other steps added. For example, you might try to seek the insanity defense. This is when the court deems you not guilty because you were not cognizant of your actions. For this, you may need to undergo one or more psychiatric evaluations.
Parole eligibility is also determined on a case by case basis. The judge will determine if you are eligible for parole. He or she will also give an amount of time that you must serve before parole is an option.
If the court denies your parole request, you may be able to request it again in the future. Again, this depends on factors of your case and your behavior in prison.
Make sure you are compliant and take advantage of services offered. This includes education, work release or prison jobs, and therapy or other classes. The more you show that you want to change, the more likely you get approved for parole.
As you can see, felony cases can differ a lot in their length. Factors such as the crime, trial conditions, and sentencing all play a role.
At the least, from the crime to the end of your sentence, you will likely be looking at a year and several months. But, as you saw, felony cases could be lifelong.
Hopefully, this has given you a better understanding of the legal system and what you can expect. You can use this information to move forward with your own case.
Cornell University. (n.d.). 18 U.S. code § 3559. Sentencing classification of offenses. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/3559
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. (n.d.). Statute of limitations. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/statute-of-limitations
Tabibian, S. (2009, July 29). The felony case process. Retrieved from https://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/felony-case-process
U.S. Department of Justice. (2015, July 24). What happens in a felony case. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndil/programs/vwa-felony