What attorneys, clerks, and judges often take for granted is that everyone understands the complexities of our judicial system. People are often scared, confused, and overwhelmed when they come to court because they simply don’t know the basics of our court system. I hope to provide you with a series of articles that will help explain how the process works in different types of cases. First thing though is to simply get you familiar with some key people in the courts and some of the legal terminology.
Many of you read the general session’s court briefs every week in the paper. I was recently surprised to learn that many people don’t know who the people are that are referred to in the briefs. For instance, contrary to what many people think, the state is not the court. The state is literally what it says, the State of Tennessee. The district attorney, also commonly referred to as the D.A., is the attorney that represents the state. When the briefs mention that the state has made a motion to dismiss a case, this simply means the district attorney, as the attorney for the state, has requested the case be dismissed because of lack of evidence, improper complaint, improper stop, victim refused to testify or failed to appear, or various other legal reasons. Cases are not dismissed by the judge or state unless there is some legal reason to do so.
To give you a better idea of how a typical criminal misdemeanor case is handled in general session court, let me give you an example. Remember, felony offenses cannot be resolved in general sessions court, but instead must be dealt with in circuit court. I will discuss that process in a later article. Now, lets get back to my example for handling a misdemeanor in general sessions. Dooley Do Little is arrested for DUI 3rd offense after consuming a few too many beers following a Tennessee game where my beloved Vols lost to Slippery Rock in the final seconds. The following day Mr. Do Little appears in general sessions for his first court setting. I inform Mr. Do Little of his rights and then ask him how he wants to plead, guilty or not guilty.
If he pleads guilty then I simply impose the fine and sentence pursuant to the law and the case is over. If he pleads not guilty I turn the file over to the state’s attorney, the district attorney, for prosecution. The district attorney uses his or her good judgment to decide to prosecute the case or not based upon the evidence. If the district attorney determines there is enough evidence to proceed, he or she will make Mr. Do Little an offer to plead and if accepted the case is over and I will pronounce sentence, usually based upon the agreement with the state. If the parties cannot agree, then the case is set for trial and I will determine the guilt or innocence of Mr. Do Little. Many times the district attorney will review the facts and determine that there is not enough evidence to prosecute or there is some kind of defect in the pleading or complaint filed by the officer. In such a case, the district attorney may decide that he or she does not wish to prosecute and request the case be dismissed. In our case, the district attorney determines that the officer made an error and Mr. Do Little does not have a prior DUI offense in the past ten years, which is required for a 2nd or 3rd conviction, and therefore, Mr. Do little is allowed to plead to a first offense DUI. Mr. Do Little is sentenced and the case is over.