Got a question about the law? Some issue been haunting you, and you really want to know the answer? Then you’ve found the right place. Here, real people ask questions and attorney Steven Shelton finds the answers.
Remember: this information is generalized and for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Before taking any course of action regarding the law, you should contact a lawyer. Each situation is unique, and competent legal advice cannot be given without all of the details, many of which may be confidential.
My cousin was arrested and charged with a felony. The family isn’t getting much information about what is going on, but we saw on the news that he had been “bound over to Circuit Court.” Does that mean he’s been found guilty and is going to jail? What does “bound over” mean?
Steven Shelton responds:
To really explain what is meant when a person is “bound over to Circuit Court”, I have to go into a little detail about how the law is structured. (Don’t worry; it won’t last long.) At its most basic level, law is divided into two parts: civil law and criminal law. Civil law addresses how individuals interact with each other. Criminal law addresses how individuals interact with society. This is why in a civil case the injured party sues the defendant, and in a criminal case a prosecutor representing the government (not the injured party) sues the defendant.
Criminal cases are divided into three basic categories:
- Civil Infractions: These are very minor violations of the law that would traditionally be misdemeanors but that the legislature has decided to “decriminalize.” Civil infractions are prosecuted by the government similarly to other criminal cases, but if the defendant loses he is not considered to have been convicted of a crime. Instead, the violation is treated as if the government was an aggrieved party in a civil suit. In Michigan, most traffic violations are civil infractions.
- Misdemeanors: Misdemeanors are minor violations of the criminal code with a maximum sentence of a year or less in jail. Misdemeanor cases are adjudicated from start to finish—from arraignment to sentencing—in District Court (Michigan’s lower trial court).
- Felonies: Felonies are serious crimes that have a maximum possible sentence of more than a year in prison. Felony cases start out in District Court but are tried in Circuit Court.
The procedure for felony cases is much more complicated than it is for misdemeanor cases. The steps for a felony trial in Michigan look like this:
- District Court
- Arraignment: The defendant is told what statute he is accused of breaking and the maximum sentence. The judge informs the defendant of his rights and sets bond.
- Pre-trial Conference: Prosecutor meets with the Defense attorney to discuss the case and possibly work out a plea agreement.
- Preliminary Examination: The hearing in which the state has to prove probable cause to charge the defendant with a felony.
- Circuit Court
- Arraignment: Essentially identical to District Court arraignment. If a plea agreement has been worked out, the defendant enters the guilty plea and allocutes (tells the judge what he did).
- Pre-trial Motion Hearings: If there are any pre-trial motions to be heard (such as motions to exclude evidence), they are heard before the trial.
- Pre-trial Conference: The Prosecutor and Defense attorney go over the case, usually with the judge, and let the judge know what specific issues of fact are being disputed and how long the trial is expected to take.
- Trial: The state attempts to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged.
- Sentencing: If the defendant is found guilty (either through entry of a guilty plea or by a verdict at the end of a trial), the defendant is told what punishment the court will impose.
For the state to charge a person with a felony, the state must first prove that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant was the person who committed it. Different states handle this task in different ways.
Some states and the federal court system use a “grand jury” system. Citizens are summoned for jury duty and sit on a panel. The prosecutor then brings in witnesses and presents evidence before the grand jury. If the grand jury is convinced that there is probable cause to proceed, it issues a document called an “indictment” and the case proceeds to the trial court. If the grand jury is not convinced, the case is dismissed and the defendant is freed. In most jurisdictions, the rules of evidence do not apply in grand jury proceedings and witnesses are not allowed to have their lawyers present. Hence the old saying that a competent prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich.”
Other states do not use grand juries. Instead, a proceeding very similar to a trial takes place in front of a District Court judge. This proceeding is called a “preliminary examination” (sometimes referred to as a “felony examination”). As in a trial, the rules of evidence apply, and the defendant is entitled to have an attorney present and cross-examine witnesses. Each side is given an opportunity to call witnesses, cross-examine the other side’s witnesses, present evidence, and give closing arguments. If the judge is not convinced that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime, the case is dismissed and the defendant set free. If the judge does find probable cause, she issues a document known as an “information”. For all practical purposes, an “information” is essentially the same as an “indictment”: it certifies that the court has found probable cause to charge the defendant with a felony. This is referred to as being “bound over” to Circuit Court. Once this is done, the case essentially starts over at the Circuit Court level and stays there through sentencing.
Interestingly, Michigan has both a “grand jury” system and a “preliminary examination” system. Grand juries are rarely used, however; well over 90% of all felony cases are put on a “preliminary examination” schedule.
So, the answer to your question: if your cousin has been “bound over to Circuit Court”, all that has happened is that the judge has issued a finding of probable cause to proceed. This is much different than the burden of proof required at trial (“beyond a reasonable doubt”). In fact, the burden of proof in preliminary examinations is so low that I’ve never seen a case not bound over to Circuit Court unless the prosecution failed to produce any witnesses (which does happen from time to time).
Steven Shelton is a Michigan attorney in private practice. Got a question for “Ask a Lawyer”? Ask it here!