There is a general belief among lawyers as well as the general public that all criminal cases beginning with an arrest somewhere in the United States follow some precise, consistent, and direct trail to formal court proceedings. This, unfortunately, is far from reality. There are many factors that have a significant impact on the post-arrest process. These factors include, but are not limited to, the location where the person was arrested, availability of a nearby operating judicial center, access to legal counsel, availability of prosecutors, court clerks, stenographers, computer systems and many other essentials. Elements of any legal process. People arrested in remote areas can expect to spend several hours at night at a police station, with little or no access to lawyers. Most are surprised to learn that many of the judges called upon to prosecute—often behind the police station—are not lawyers at all. Many arraignments take place without legal counsel, prosecutors, clerks of the court, or even stenographers. Fortunately, a man arrested in Bronx County, New York City will, with few exceptions, follow a highly organized path that leads directly to his indictment. Available courts, lawyers, prosecutors, stenographers, and all other persons, or systems, necessary to proceed with the case in a timely and orderly manner. However, as systematic as it is, the process may seem Kafkaesque to the general public, and even to the uneducated legal practitioner. The following is a roadmap outlining the exact journey virtually all cases take from the moment of arrest to the official prosecution proceedings.
All criminal cases in the Bronx, New York, begin with the report of a crime, either by civilian witnesses or by police officers. The citizen reporting the crime may be an actual eyewitness, a victim of a criminal offense, or a representative of the victim, such as a parent. In addition, certain classified professionals, such as social workers, doctors, lawyers, or legal guardians, are bound by law to report certain crimes that come to their notice. The police can initiate a criminal complaint against a person in the absence of a victim or witness. Typically, this occurs when police witness a person commit a crime, such as drunk driving, possession of a weapon, or the sale and possession of drugs.
After a complaint is made by a citizen, or after being observed by the police, a potential suspect may not be arrested immediately. Attempts may be made by the police to encourage the suspect to speak to the police in order to obtain an incriminating statement, or to provide evidence or proceeds of a crime. As soon as the suspect either talks to the police, or seeks legal advice, the actual arrest may take place. An arrest is when the person’s liberty is physically restricted, either by handcuffing, physically restraining the suspect, or by threatening force. After arrest, the suspect is usually brought to the local police precinct for processing. Processing involves fingerprinting a suspect to determine the person’s exact identity based on any prior criminal history. If the person has no prior police record, the fingerprint report will indicate so. After the person is printed, their NYSID number will appear on their fingerprint report. NYSID stands for New York State Identification. A person with a prior police record will be given the same NYSID number. A person who has never been arrested will be assigned a new NYSID number. The NYSID number is used throughout New York State to track a person’s criminal history. It also shows whether the person has any outstanding bench warrants, any fines outstanding in court, or is wanted in another state or jurisdiction. The suspect is also assigned an arrest number. The arrest number pertains to this particular arrest only. Apart from checking the print and records of the arrested person, photographs are also taken for the purpose of identification.
The next step in the process is the actual filing of the Police Complaint Report. Police complaint report is filled by the arresting officer. It provides a brief description of the crime, the evidence obtained, the names of victims or witnesses, if any, and the exact charge for which the defendant is arrested. The arrest report also includes the name, address and personal information of the defendant. This information, known as the genealogy, usually comes from the defendant himself, and becomes part of the official report. Once all this information is compiled, defendants, arrest reports, fingerprint reports, and all other pertinent information are moved to Central Booking. Central Booking is located in the Bronx Criminal Court Building. Here the complete file prepared by the police is presented to the Bronx District Attorney’s office. The district attorney reviews the entire case and decides whether or not to proceed with the arrest process. If the prosecutor declines to prosecute due to insufficient evidence, or for any other reason, the defendant shall be released from custody, and all records, and photographs compiled, shall be erased. If the case is not dismissed, a formal criminal court complaint will be drawn up by the prosecutor.
The criminal court complaint is a more detailed complaint of all the charges made against the defendant. This includes information about the evidence obtained, the names of witnesses, the time and place of the offenses alleged, and an affidavit by the complaining witness or arresting officer. Once this affidavit is reviewed and signed, the entire case is sent to the criminal court for trial. An arraignment occurs when the defendant is brought before a court and publicly informed that certain criminal charges have been filed against him. Prior to presentation, each criminal court complaint is assigned a docket number. The docket number pertains to the complaint of this particular criminal court only. Before actual indictment, however, the suspect, now a defendant, is entitled to legal counsel. A copy of the official criminal court complaint shall be provided to the attorney assigned or hired by the defendant, along with a copy of the defendant’s criminal background. The lawyer will then be allowed to speak with the defendant before arraignment. The purpose of this interview is for counsel to inform the defendant of the charges filed, obtain any important information, such as defense witnesses, discuss bail issues, and answer any legal questions the accused may have. Once this is completed, the defendant is brought to appear in court. The actual charge usually lasts no more than a few minutes. The prosecutor usually informs the judge about the seriousness of the case before the court, and whether bail is being requested. The prosecutor also informs defense counsel whether or not a statement was made by the defendant, and if the defendant was identified in a line-up, or by any other means, such as photo identification. Once the prosecutor has finished addressing the court, the defense attorney speaks on behalf of the defendant. The defense attorney’s primary goal at this point is to obtain the defendant’s release without bail, or with minimal bail conditions. The attorney may argue that the case before the court is a minor criminal offense, is legally insufficient, or represents a defendant’s first offense. The attorney may also argue that the defendant maintains strong community ties, such as work and family, and is unlikely to warrant release. At this point, the judge decides as to the bail, and adjourns the matter for further legal proceedings, thereby completing the indictment process.