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Criminal Process in New Jersey

What Happens after You Get Arrested in New Jersey?

Arrested criminal charge Phillipsburg NJ need lawyerA detective called you and wants you to come to the station to answer questions, you are under criminal investigation, or you have been accused of a crime. You’re wondering if you need an attorney and what will happen if you get arrested in New Jersey. It is imperative to know what to expect after being arrested and what happens in the process in a criminal case in NJ. If you have already been arrested and you want to discuss your rights and options given criminal charges, contact our experienced attorneys for immediate assistance. You can get a free consultation about simple assault, marijuana possession under 50 grams, unlawful possession of a weapon, burglary, shoplifting, or another crime by contacting us at 973-755-1695 today. Our criminal defense lawyers regularly defend clients arrested in Phillipsburg, Sparta, Hackettstown, Franklin, Frankford, Newton, Vernon, and nearby areas, and we are available anytime to answer your questions. Don’t hesitate to talk to an experienced lawyer at our firm about your case.

Beginning the Criminal Process

The criminal process may begin with an arrest while a crime is in progress or afterward by warrant or sworn statements. All arrests in New Jersey are based on probable cause, meaning there is evidence that would reasonably lead an officer to believe a crime was committed by the person arrested. When a defendant is charged by a citizen or law enforcement officer with a crime or offense, a criminal case begins. A complaint charges the named defendant with specifically cited crimes and describes the behaviors that give reason to believe that the crimes occurred by the defendant. Criminal complaints involving indictable felony crimes are heard in the Superior Court, while criminal complaints for lesser offenses are heard in local municipal courts in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred. Criminal convictions are punishable by probation, fines and/or imprisonment, the time or amount dependent upon the severity of the crime. For example, first degree crimes carry a 10 to 20-year prison sentence, a second degree crime is punishable by 5 to 10 years, a third degree crime may result in prison for 3 to 5 years, while fourth degree crimes entail up to 18 months in prison. Municipal court disorderly persons offenses could lead to up to 6 months in the county jail.

Bail Hearings and Detention Decisions

If a person is arrested for a serious crime or a domestic violence offense, the defendant appears before a judge within 48 hours of being taken to county jail. At the detention hearing, the judge will determine if the defendant is to be released pending trial or should remain in jail. This decision is made considering the defendant’s ties to the community, their criminal record, employment and residential history, as well as mental health and drug abuse history. All factors in favor of the defendant’s probable return to court are weighed against the severity of the crime and the potential consequences, among other arguments the defense and prosecution provide. In making the bail decision, the judge may either grant release with certain conditions, or deny bail and keep the defendant in jail pending a trial or other disposition of the criminal case. A defendant may also be released on their own recognizance by affidavit or sworn declaration that they will return to court to face the pending charges, but only if they appear unlikely to flee given their ties to the community, clean record, and/or other factors.


At the arraignment, or first court appearance, the judge reads the charges against the defendant who responds with a plea of guilty or not guilty. The defendant is informed that they have a right to have an attorney represent them through the proceedings, whether they can afford one or not. The defendant may request a public defender at this hearing.  If they qualify as an indigent who cannot afford a private attorney by a review of their tax returns, credit and earnings records, a public defender or pool attorney is assigned to them. If denied, the defendant must find affordable counsel or proceed without an attorney if the judge approves.

Superior Court Criminal Cases by Indictment

A criminal case may in Superior Court requires indictment by a grand jury of 23 local citizens enlisted to consider evidence presented by the prosecution. Before an indictment and after the filing of the complaint, however, the prosecuting attorney or investigator assigned to the case (the screening unit) must weigh the probability of obtaining a conviction or convictions based on the alleged facts in police reports and victim and witness interviews, to determine if the charges have merit. The complaint may continue to indictment, be remanded (sent down) to the municipal court on lesser offenses, or dismissed. If the case does not go to municipal court or get dismissed, the prosecutor presents evidence to the prosecution’s case (police reports, other records and witness testimony) to the grand jury to consider if the evidence presented is enough to charge the defendant or defendants with a crime or crimes. Typically, neither the defendant nor their attorney appears before the grand jury. If a majority vote for indictment, the grand jury delivers a true bill, which means the defendant must answer to the charges in the complaint. Otherwise, the charges are dismissed, or the charges downgraded to a disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly persons charge.

Diversion through Pre-Trial Intervention

If the defendant has no prior criminal record and has been charged with an eligible third degree or fourth degree crime, they may have the option to be diverted through the Pretrial Intervention Program. Pretrial Intervention is a diversionary program that permits qualified first-time offenders to enter court-supervised community living in lieu of going through the criminal process to possible conviction. Only certain defendants are eligible for the program. Those charged with violent offenses, racketeering, organized crime, abuse of a public office for personal gain, probationers, and parolees generally do not qualify for the program. First or second degree crimes may also disqualify an applicant from PTI.

Defendant applicants are screened by probation officers who review applicant eligibility and report their findings to the Criminal Division Manager and the prosecutor, with power to approve or deny applicants. The judge’s consent is also necessary. The object of the program is rehabilitation, so program participants may get substance abuse or mental illness counseling or perform community service. Often, they submit to drug testing, pay restitution, surrender firearms or a driver’s license for a certain time in exchange for suspending the charges against them up to 3 years until they finish the program and charges are dismissed. Failure to complete the program results in resumption of the criminal proceedings.

Plea Bargains to Resolve a Criminal Case

Defendants wishing to avoid a trial may enter a plea bargain, which is an agreement between the defendant and prosecution, most often negotiated by the defense attorney, for a lesser charge or lighter sentence if the defendant agrees to enter a guilty plea. Sometimes the charges are dismissed by way of a plea agreement. Once entered, the court sets a day for the plea to be entered and the defendant attests that they understand the plea and enter into the agreement voluntarily. The judge, however, does not have to accept the plea bargain or sentence according to the agreement. Sentencing follows a pre-sentencing investigation by the criminal division’s probation officers. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge orders an investigation by the criminal division probation officers prior to sentencing 4 to 6 weeks after conviction.

Criminal Trials

Defendants entering a not guilty plea at arraignment will proceed to trial if the case cannot be resolved during the pre-trial phases. Disposition/status conferences and the pretrial conference allow a defendant to change their plea or continue negotiations for a plea bargain until the plea cutoff date set by the court, after which the case proceeds to trial by jury or judge, whichever the defendant chooses, where they are found guilty or are acquitted. If acquitted, the acquittal is final, as a defendant cannot be tried twice for the same crime.


A guilty conviction triggers the pre-sentencing investigation and a later date for the sentencing. Pre-sentencing investigations help the presiding judge arrive at a sentence considering the defendant’s crimes and life circumstances. An investigation includes a report on the defendant’s family, financial, medical and criminal background. It also includes the circumstances of the crimes (the victim’s and their family’s harm and hardship) as well as any history of drug abuse, eligibility for probation and treatment. The investigative report summarizes criminal and other records, as well as victims or family statements and makes recommendations in consideration of the judge’s option to sentence probation or prison time. The judge is not obligated to follow the recommendations in the report.

Judges have leeway in sentencing, weighing the severity of the crime and its consequences to victims and their families against mitigating factors that explain the defendant’s criminal behavior in light of defendant’s circumstances or history, such as a prior criminal record or childhood abuse, substance abuse or other life circumstances shedding light on the nature of the crimes committed. A prior criminal record weighs on defendant’s ability to be rehabilitated or placed on probation.

The criminal code dictates the parameters of sentencing, but the judge may exercise discretion as to whether a defendant is sentenced to probation or prison, unless the crime is one with mandatory prison terms. The judge still has discretion on the length within the minimum to maximum range. A defendant may appeal their conviction to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court to see if the judge’s decision was fair. Defendants file their motion to modify their sentence to the judge who sentenced them.

Facing the Criminal Process in NJ? Contact Phillipsburg Defense Lawyers

You have options, so be sure to consult with a seasoned criminal defense attorney who can guide you from the first step to the last in the criminal justice system. Our lawyers have been representing clients charged with crimes for years throughout New Jersey and we can provide the personalized guidance and aggressive defense you need. Whether you have been charged with robbery, illegal gun possession, aggravated assault, resisting arrest, or another offense, we are here to assist you in Sussex County, Warren County, or another county in NJ. Contact us at 973-755-1695 to learn more. We always provide free consultations.

Additional Information:

What to Know if Police Want to Question You in New Jersey 

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