• By Albert Depew

The Court Process

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Preliminary Hearing
Individuals at Trial
Misdemeanor and District Court Trials
Direct Examination
Cross Examination
Special District Court Trial Rules

Once a defendant has been charged with a crime and either arrested or summoned to appear before the court, he/she is given an initial appearance or arraignment. At that time, the defendant is notified of the charges and the bail amount. Depending upon the classification of the charge, the defendant is either given a trial date (for misdemeanors), or a date for a preliminary hearing (if gross misdemeanor or felony).

Initial Appearance or Arraignment

At the time of initial appearance (for misdemeanors) or arraignment in district court (for gross misdemeanors and felonies bound over after preliminary examination), the defendant is read the charges and asked to enter a plea of guilty, no guilty or nolo contendre. If the defendant pleads guilty to misdemeanors, the judge usually will sentence the defendant at that time. If this occurs, you may not have the opportunity to be heard for sentencing. If this is a serious concern for you, you should contact your prosecutor immediately and notify them of your sentencing concerns. This is especially important if you believe you are entitled to restitution.

A nolo contendre plea is treated as a guilty plea by the court, but allows the defendant to escape civil liability based on his plea. You always have the option of pursuing civil remedies, through a private attorney. You cannot stop a defendant from pleading nolo contendre.

Although misdemeanor defendants routinely plead guilty at time of arraignment, the justice of the peace does not have jurisdiction to accept a guilty plea on behalf of a defendant charged with a gross misdemeanor or felony.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge will then set a trial date. The defendant is entitled to a trial within 60 days. Although defendants have this right, the date for trial will usually be set several months away unless the defendant is in custody and has not been able to make bail. Do not be surprised if the trial date is many months away, or if it gets continued. Trial preparation by the prosecution and defense often takes time. The court system is quite busy and often is unable to hold all trials within a short time of the crime being committed.

Preliminary Hearing

If the defendant has been charged with a gross misdemeanor or felony, he/she is entitled to a preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing is a probable cause hearing where the judge will decide if there is sufficient evidence to show a crime "probably" has been committed and if the defendant "probably" committed it. A preliminary hearing is conducted like a trial, except that often a prosecutor or defense attorney will not put on their entire case. Remember guilt or innocence is not being decided at a preliminary hearing--just probable cause to bind the defendant over for trial in district court. If the judge does not find sufficient evidence to bind the case over for trial, it will be dismissed.

Some of the larger jurisdictions (Las Vegas and Reno) have grand juries impaneled. A grand jury functions much like a judge in deciding whether there is sufficient evidence to bind over a defendant charged with a felony or gross misdemeanor for trial in district court. However, in a grand jury proceeding, the defendant or his attorney may, but is not required, to present evidence tending to explain away the criminal allegations, but is not allowed to ask questions or cross-examine witnesses. Because grand jury proceedings are inquisitorial and therefore "one-sided," the prosecutor is ethically obliged to present any evidence that tends to show the defendant did not commit the crime(s) alleged.


Once a trial date is set, you will be given a subpoena, which is a court order directing you to appear at a specified time and place. It may be delivered to you by mail or in person. This is a court order, and if you fail to appear at the time and place stated, you face criminal contempt of court charges. It is very important to obey a subpoena.

If you have a conflict with the date set on the subpoena, it is also very important that you contact the prosecutor's office as soon as possible to notify them. You should also notify the prosecutor's office if you change your address, phone number or plan on leaving the area.

Your employer should not discharge, punish or threaten you for attending a criminal proceeding when you are subpoenaed. If you experience such problems, please contact your prosecutor's office immediately. It is a misdemeanor offense for an employer to do this, or to penalize an employee summoned to court for jury duty.

It is always advisable to contact your prosecutor's office upon receipt of a subpoena from either the prosecutor's office or defense attorney. That allows the prosecutor plenty of time to meet with you or discuss the case by telephone before you have to testify.

Misdemeanor and District Court Trials

As a victim or witness, you will be expected to appear at the time and place set for trial as set forth in your subpoena. You should contact the prosecutor when you appear in court for trial.

Individuals at Trial: 

  • Judge - presides over the trial, and will determine guilt or innocence unless a jury is deciding the case.
  • Prosecutor - represents the state or city and is responsible for presenting the case.
  • Defendant - the person accused of committing the crime.
  • Defense Attorney - responsible for representing and defending the accused.
  • Bailiff - law enforcement officer who provides security in the courtroom.
  • Court Clerk - responsible for administering oaths and keeping court docket.
  • Court Reporter - takes down everything that is said in a trial.
  • Jury - 12 residents of the county selected to determine guilt or innocence, when a jury trial is available (gross misdemeanors and felonies).

Once the trial begins, the judge will give you an oath to tell the truth. Once you have taken that oath, you may testify. If it is not your turn to testify, you may be asked to wait outside until you are called. This is called the Rule of Exclusion, and is to make sure that witnesses do not listen to each other's testimony. Do not be offended if you are asked to leave.

Once you are asked to testify, you will be reminded that you are under oath (or the oath will be given). You will be asked to give Your full name and to spell it for the record.

Direct Examination

You will be first asked questions by the prosecutor (if they subpoenaed you). This is called direct examination. In direct examination, the prosecutor will be asking you what you saw, heard or know.


Once the prosecutor has finished asking you questions, then the defense attorney will asked you questions. This is called cross-examination. Generally, most questions under cross-examination can be answered with a yes or no. After cross-examination, the prosecutor has the opportunity to ask you questions based on any questions the defense attorney may have asked you. This is called Rebuttal. The defense attorney then as the opportunity to ask you questions based on the rebuttal questions. This is called sur-rebuttal.

Once you have finished testifying you may either be excused by the court, or be asked to remain for possible further testimony. Do not leave the area unless you have been excused by the judge or have spoken with the prosecutor.

After the prosecutor has put on his case (called the case-in-chief), the defense has the opportunity to put on their case. The defense can call witnesses (including you) to try to show that the defendant is not guilty of the charged crime-- or simply that the prosecution has not met the heavy burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has the right to take the stand and testify on his or her own behalf. Defendants also have the right not to testify. The prosecutor has the same right to cross-examine the defense witnesses as the defense has with the prosecution witnesses. After the defense has put on their witnesses, the prosecutor has the chance to put on any additional witnesses to rebut the defense case.

Once both the prosecution and defense have put on their respective cases, the court closes that portion of the trial and asks for final arguments. You may be present for these arguments if you so desire. In closing arguments, the state tries to convince the Court they have proven the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense attorney tries to show the opposite. The judge may make a ruling at that time, or may take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling later.

If the defendant is found guilty of a misdemeanor, then a sentence is generally handed down at that time. If you are a victim, you have the right to appear and be heard at sentencing. For further information on sentencing, see the Sentencing section of this handbook.

Special District Court Trial Rules

In a district court trial, a panel of 12 jurors (and several alternates) will decide if the defendant is guilty of the charged crimes. The jurors are selected through a process called voir dire, where the attorneys and judge, through a question and answer process, try to pick jurors who will be fair-minded, and without any preconceived notions or information about the case.

The district court judge will conduct the trial and will make rulings on what is admissible in court. The trial will be conducted as explained above.

The jurors will listen to all the evidence, and when the class is closed, will go into deliberations. During the deliberations, the jurors will decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charged crimes. Sometimes, deliberations can take several days.

If a defendant is found guilty of the charges, the district court judge will delay sentencing (usually 30-60 days) to have the Department of Parole and Probation prepare a pre-sentence investigation (see Sentencing section of this handbook). In murder cases, the jury also determines the appropriate sentence, and the trial is divided into guilt phase and sentencing phase (if a guilty verdict is returned).

Never attempt to talk with a juror about the case or any other matter during the trial. This includes chance meetings during recesses, in hallways, at lunch or any other place. Even if you are friends with a juror, you must not discuss the case with them. Violation of this rule against juror contact can result in a mistrial and a finding of contempt against the person making such contacts.

Your conduct during a jury trial is especially critical. Dress appropriately, maintain eye contact with whoever is asking the questions, be courteous to the court and the attorneys, and always listen to the question that is being asked.

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