How Long Does It Take for a Case to Go Through the Courts?

by Rowan Guthrie
Lawyer discussing legal case with client

Going through the courts can make you feel like you're in a maze of baffling and inexplicably lengthy legal processes — whether you’re the victim awaiting the perpetrator’s sentence, or you’re the defendant who’s anxious for your day in court.

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As long as it may take, each part of the process is important to ensuring justice is adequately carried out. Here’s a look at the average timeline of a criminal case.

How Long Does It Take From Arrest to Arraignment in Criminal Cases?

In most states, the arraignment must take place within 48 to 72 hours of the arrest. However, certain states require the arraignment to take place within 24 hours. These states include:

  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Maryland
  • New Hampshire

For individuals arrested in Connecticut or Massachusetts, the arraignment must be at the next available court session, whenever that may be.

Pretrial appearances can extend the process further, regardless of the state. The length of time is determined by the severity of the charges and local processes.

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How Long Does It Take for a Case to Go to Trial in Criminal Cases?

It's impossible to definitively say when a case will go to trial because every case is unique. However, using California as a guide, a jury-trial misdemeanor case must begin within 45 days of the arraignment or plea if the defendant isn't in custody, and within 30 days if they are. For jury-trial felony cases, the trial must begin within 60 days.

To avoid a trial and possibly a longer sentence, the defendant may be offered a plea deal. However, plea bargaining between the defendant's attorney and the prosecutor can affect the timeline. If the defendant pleads guilty, they'll be sentenced without trial. However, if the negotiations fail, the date of the trial may be later than it would have been if the parties hadn't entered into plea negotiations.

How Long Does a Trial Take in Criminal Cases?

It's difficult to put a precise timeline on how long a criminal trial will last. Trials, by their nature, delve into unexpected areas, which adds to their duration. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants everyone the right to a speedy trial, but "speedy" means as quickly as possible … considering the complexity of the case. Therefore, a speedy trial can still be long.

As a guide, the average time for courts to reach disposition from the time of the arrest is 256 days for felony cases and 193 days for misdemeanors. If the case is high-profile with extensive media coverage or significant public interest, it may last longer than it would under normal circumstances. Judges and attorneys may take extra precautions to ensure a fair trial, which often involves additional procedures that take more time.

The trial process involves various stages, including:

  • Jury selection
  • Opening statements
  • The presentation of evidence
  • Witness testimony
  • Cross-examination
  • Closing arguments
  • Jury deliberations

Each of these phases contributes to the overall duration. Jury selection, in particular, may take longer in cases that have already had extensive media coverage.

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How Much Time Is There Between the Trial and Sentencing in Criminal Cases?

The time between the trial and sentencing varies based on court availability, the complexity of the case and the scheduling of the sentencing hearing. In some cases, sentencing may occur immediately after a guilty verdict is rendered. However, with federal cases, it's likely to be a few months, and in state cases, such as in New York, it may be several weeks.

A delay in sentencing can occur when the judge schedules a separate presentencing hearing. This allows the prosecution and defense to present arguments and evidence that may influence the judge's decision regarding the most appropriate sentence.

How Long Does the Appeals Process Take in Criminal Cases?

Every defendant found guilty has the right to appeal the verdict and/or their sentence. As with every other stage of the process, the complexity of the case and the workload of the courts can affect the timeline. The introduction of specific legal issues raised on appeal may also cause delays.

In federal cases, defendants should expect the process to last a few months, but it could take as long as two years. This is because it can take the defense team several months to prepare a complex appeal, and it might take the court several more months to reach a decision. In state cases, the appeal process varies. For example, in North Carolina, it can take anywhere from a few months to one year.

A notice of appeal in a federal criminal case must be filed within 14 days of when the judgment was entered. In state cases, it's usually around 21 days. However, some states, such as California, allow up to 30 or 60 days for felony cases.

Are There Limits on How Long the Entire Process Can Take in Criminal Cases?

The right to a speedy trial is a fundamental constitutional protection for citizens provided by the Sixth Amendment. While there are no fixed time limits, jurisdictions have established guidelines and legal precedents to prevent undue delays.

The right to a speedy trial is determined on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as the nature of the charges, the reasons for any delays and the impact on the defendant's rights are considered. If a defendant's right to a speedy trial is violated, it can lead to case dismissal or other remedies.

Why Does It Take So Long for Cases to Move Through the Court System?

Trials have layers of complexity, and even the simplest case can be somewhat complicated. This ensures every defendant is treated fairly and their punishment is appropriate to the nature of their crimes. Factors that lengthen the legal process include:

  • Legal procedures and pretrial motions
  • Case preparation
  • Court scheduling
  • Availability of witnesses
  • Availability of expert witnesses
  • Negotiations and plea bargains
  • The complexity of the case
  • Legal motions and appeals
  • Changes in circumstances, such as the late introduction of new evidence

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