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Criminal Law Part II

So you have been arrested... Part II: Felonies in Circuit Court - District Division

You said that Felonies are handled only in Superior Court, why do I have to go to Circuit Court?

So worst case scenario happened, and you are facing a felony. Felonies are the highest level of offense in New Hampshire and are broken down into classes; A and B. Class A felonies are punishable by up to 7.5-15 years in the New Hampshire State Prison, while Class B felonies are punishable by up to 3.5-7 years in prison. In either case, felony matters are dealt with at the Superior Court level. Each county has a Superior Court (in the case of Hillsborough County there are two divisions to the Superior Court, one in Manchester and one in Nashua).

Your focus will go immediately to your trial, and you may even think that the first court date that you have is a trial; not true. All charges start off with an arraignment, and if you were arrested, that arraignment will actually be in the Circuit Court. There are several Circuit Courts in each county. This arraignment is when the judge informs you of the charge(s) that are pending against you, and regarding felonies, no plea will be entered on your behalf. You cannot say that you are either guilty or not guilty of the charge; that determination is for the Superior Court level.

Sounds harmless... but there is a catch. Your bail gets revisited at this stage. So even if you have made bail when you were arrested, the judge can change it. He can raise it, lower it, or more-likely, add conditions governing what you can and cannot do while your case is pending. So even at this early of a stage, having an advocate on your side is important.

What's next? Well, at that arraignment the judge will assign a date for you to come back for a Probable Cause Hearing, and that hearing is scheduled quickly. If you are still in custody because you have not made bail, that hearing is 10 days after your arraignment. If you are out on bail, it has to be scheduled within 20 days of your arraignment.

No, the Probable Cause Hearing is not your trial; it may feel like it though. This is a hearing where the Circuit Court judge has to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the charged offense occurred and that you committed it. Just like anything in a criminal proceeding, the burden of proof is on the Prosecution. Probable cause is a very low burden that they have; much less than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" that is required for a conviction.

If the judge finds that there is probable cause, you are not convicted of the crime. Rather, the case is transferred to the Superior Court where the County Attorney presents the case to the Grand Jury and they determine whether an indictment is appropriate, and they do so in a secret proceeding. During this time, you remain under the bail conditions as set by the Circuit Court judge. If you are indicted the process starts for you in the Superior Court, and this is where your guilt or innocence is determined.

If the judge does not find probable cause, it does not mean that your case is over. You could still be indicted if the County Attorney wishes to continue to prosecute the case. But, you are no longer under the bail conditions as set in the Circuit Court.

This process moves fast, so it is important to have someone fighting for you.

What happens next? Stay tuned for Part III: Felonies in the Superior Court.

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