This is a summary of how a case makes its way through the Tennessee court system, from arrest through disposition. Please be advised that this is only a guide, and the procedures may vary slightly in different counties or some of the steps may or may not be applicable to your specific case.
Arrest or Citation Issued
The process typically begins when an individual is arrested or receives a citation and is told to report to be booked at a later date. A citation for an arrestable offense (for example, Simple Possession) is still considered an arrest, but it is an arrest and release during which the person is released on their own recognizance (without having to pay a bond) and expected to report to be booked.
An arraignment may also be called an Initial Appearance in Tennessee. This procedure is how an individual who has been charged with an offense officially begins the court process. The procedure may occur before the first court date if it is conducted via a video conference while still in jail. An arraignment is held before a Judge or Magistrate, and allows the Judge or Magistrate to set a bond if one has not yet been set. The purposes of an arraignment are: to ensure that an individual is aware of the charges that have been brought against them, to inform them that they have the right to have an attorney represent them, and to schedule the next court date. During an arraignment, the Judge may require that an individual enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.
General Sessions Court
General Sessions Courts in Tennessee have jurisdiction over both criminal and civil cases. At this stage in the proceedings, a criminal case can be resolved or can proceed to the Grand Jury. An individual is entitled to have a Preliminary Hearing, or they can waive their Preliminary Hearing and send the case to the Grand Jury voluntarily. The case can also resolved by reaching a plea agreement.
It is important to note that a Preliminary Hearing is held in order for a Judge to determine if there is probable cause to send the case to the Grand Jury. The probable cause standard amounts to reasonable grounds for the Judge to determine that the individual charged committed an offense, and is a very low standard of proof.
Plea agreements that involve misdemeanor offenses may be entered into in General Sessions Courts. Plea agreements that involve a felony offense may be agreed to in General Sessions Courts, but must be entered into in Criminal Court.
The Grand Jury is composed of 13 citizens, and all proceedings are held in secrecy. The Grand Jury determines if there is probable cause for a criminal charge. The Grand Jury typically only hears testimony or information from the prosecution’s witnesses. The Grand Jury will then issue a “True Bill” or a “No True Bill” for each case presented. A “True Bill” means that there will be an Indictment or Presentment issued, while a “No True Bill” means that the case will not continue.
Indictment or Presentment
The formal charging instrument for a Criminal Court case, signed by the Grand Jury.
Criminal Court Arraignment
An arraignment held in Criminal Court, which serves the same basic purposes as an arraignment held in General Sessions Court.
The Criminal Court is the highest level of trial court in Tennessee. It is sometimes also referred to Circuit Court. At this stage, an individual can resolve their case by entering into a plea agreement, or by proceeding to a trial by jury or a bench trial. An individual is afforded more rights at this level than they are at the General Sessions Court level. A case resolved in Criminal Court will also have a Sentencing in Criminal Court.
Not all cases will begin in General Sessions Court after an arrest or citation. Some cases originate in the Grand Jury and result in a Presentment, which then serves as the arresting instrument.
Because of the structure of the court system, if a case is dismissed at the General Sessions Court level, it can still be taken to the Grand Jury. This can be an important consideration when making decisions about how to proceed with your case.
Although this provides a general guide of the basic structure of the court system, the actual process is much more complex and involves a myriad of rules and considerations. With your future on the line, ensure that you are represented by a qualified attorney who helps you understand what is happening at each and every stage of the process.