American Flag in front of court houseUnderstanding Sexual Assault and the Court Process

An experience of sexual assault may include seeking justice through the court system. For many, this is a unfamiliar process. Here you will find information to help you or someone you know better prepare for and understand the process, terminology and possible outcomes.

Felony Process, Adults and Juveniles

Felony Process Flow Chart (PDF)

Juvenile Process Flow Chart (PDF)

At SVJI we know that navigating the felony criminal justice process can be overwhelming, especially following the trauma of a sexual assault. The information here may help in understanding what steps to expect. See also the SVJI detailed fact sheets on specific steps in the criminal justice process.

Crime - A crime is an act which could be punishable by county jail and/or state prison. The State of Minnesota brings criminal charges against an individual when the prosecutor can prove he or she committed a crime, usually through a county attorney (prosecutor) for each county.

Police Investigation - When a crime is reported to police, they will conduct an investigation by interviewing the victim and other people who may have knowledge of the crime, and by gathering physical evidence and photographs. They will normally interview the person suspected of committing the crime, but police do have certain limitations on what they can do to investigate based on constitutional restrictions about interviews, searching for or taking evidence, and the constitutional right to access an attorney. 

No Charges Filed - After police complete an investigation, they will normally send the reports to the prosecutor for review. If the police have not identified a suspect, or if it appears that there is insufficient evidence to convict any suspect, the prosecutor may decline to file charges against anyone. This decision may be reached even though the police and prosecutor personally believe that the victim was sexually assaulted by an individual - they may simply believe that they cannot convince a jury of the suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Complaint/Indictment - Once the police complete an investigation and have identified a person they believe committed a crime, they compile police reports about their witness interviews and evidence collected, and send them to the prosecuting attorney for review. The prosecutor will review the police reports and decide whether a crime should be charged. This is normally done when the prosecutor drafts a complaint, listing a summary of the events that took place and naming the criminal offenses the person is said to have committed.

The prosecutor may also at times convene a grand jury, which is a group of residents of the county who hear live witness testimony and see the evidence collected by the police. They then determine whether charges should be brought against the suspect, and decide which charges are appropriate. If they bring charges, it is called an indictment.

Warrant/Summons - Even with a serious offense such as sexual assault, the suspect is not always arrested by the police. More often than not, a summons is issued informing the suspect that he or she has been charged with a crime (by complaint or indictment), and informing him or her that s/he must appear in court on a certain date.

If the suspect fails to show up at court, or if the police wish to make an arrest after their investigation, the court will issue an arrest warrant. This is a document giving permission for any licensed peace officer in the country to arrest the individual. Law enforcement will then investigate to locate the suspect, or encounter the suspect in their work as law enforcement, and the warrant allows the suspect to be arrested.

Arraignment - Throughout the criminal proceedings, a series of court appearances or hearings are required by a set of rules the court and attorneys must follow. The arraignment is the first appearance by the suspect in court. The suspect is informed of the charges against him or her, and has an opportunity to apply for a court-appointed attorney if desired. If the suspect (now called the defendant, as there are criminal charges pending) is in custody during the arraignment, the issue of bail release orders will be discussed. This should include an order not to contact the victim of the crime if desired by the victim.

Pre-trial Motions - During the series of court appearances, a criminal defendant may make motions to "suppress" (or exclude from evidence) certain pieces of evidence collected during the police investigation. The defendant might also ask the court to dismiss the charges. These motions are based on either the legal restrictions on what police can do when investigating, or the rules of evidence admissible in court, or other limitations in the law. There may be a hearing, called an omnibus hearing, where the attorneys will present brief witness testimony and argue the legal issues. Victims of sexual assault are rarely asked to testify at these types of hearings, as it is the police investigation and not the statement of the victim which is at issue at this stage.

Dismissal - If at some point in the criminal proceedings it becomes clear that the prosecutor cannot prove the criminal case against the defendant, the charges might be dismissed. Either the court, after a motion by the defendant at the omnibus hearing, or the prosecutor, after re-evaluating the case, may dismiss charges. Whether charges may be brought again in the future depends upon the circumstances, but the criminal proceedings are over unless new charges are brought.

Guilty Plea - Most criminal defendants plead "guilty" to some crime after being charged by the prosecutor. The defense attorney and prosecutor will have plea negotiations, where they try to reach a fair result for everyone involved, and will usually agree on what crime the defendant will plead guilty to and a set range of sentencing options to argue to the court. A guilty plea has the same result as if the defendant were convicted by trial and will be a criminal conviction on the defendant's criminal history record.

Trial - The defendant may choose to plead "not guilty," and has a right to demand a trial by either jury or judge to determine whether he or she is guilty. At the trial, the prosecutor will call witnesses, including the victim, to testify in person. The prosecutor will also present the other evidence and photographs obtained by the police.

The defendant and his or her attorney may question the prosecutor's witnesses, and call his or her own witnesses, including the defendant. The defense team may also present other items of evidence. However, the defendant may also choose not to present any witnesses or evidence. In the trial, the burden of proving that the defendant committed the crime is on the prosecutor. It must be proven to the jury or judge beyond a reasonable doubt.

Acquittal - If the judge (without a jury) or the jury decide that the case has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant will be acquitted. This means that the defendant has been found "not guilty." Once a defendant is found not guilty, he or she can never be charged with any crime arising from the same incident again, under the doctrine of "double jeopardy."

Importantly, when a judge or jury find a defendant "not guilty," it may not mean that they completely disbelieved that the offense occurred. They may simply feel that, while the offense may have occurred, it wasn't proven with evidence beyond a reasonable doubt sufficient to support a criminal conviction.

Guilty Verdict - If the judge (without a jury) or the jury believe that the prosecutor has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant will be convicted. This means that he or she has been found "guilty." A defendant might be found guilty of some crimes charged, but not others, depending upon what the jury believed that the evidence showed. 

Sentencing - If the defendant is found guilty, or pleads guilty, the judge will decide upon a sentence that the defendant must serve. Usually a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) is completed before sentencing, where a probation officer will investigate the history of the defendant, the facts of the case at hand, the input from the victim, and other useful information so that the judge is prepared to understand the situation fully before deciding upon a sentence. Once the PSI report is completed, a hearing is held and the judge will decide what sentence to impose on the defendant. 

In Minnesota, the court will use a chart called the Sentencing Guidelines, which considers the defendant's criminal history, and gives a severity number to each criminal offense. Using these two items, the chart is a guideline about whether the sentence should be probation or prison, and if prison, what the term of imprisonment should be. 

Appeal - A defendant has the right to appeal to a higher court about either the conviction itself, or the sentence that was imposed. The Court of Appeals will review the transcript of the trial or guilty plea and sentencing and will determine whether any mistakes were made which were serious enough to require a new trial or a new sentencing. It is rare for the Court of Appeals to overturn what has already been decided upon by the trial judge.

After the Court of Appeals, the defendant may appeal to the State Supreme Court, which selects certain cases to hear each year. It is also rare for the Supreme Court to select a case to review, but when they do, they review the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Prison - Using the Sentencing Guidelines (see Sentencing above) the judge may sentence the defendant to go to prison. If the defendant goes to prison, he or she will likely serve approximately 2/3 of the sentence in prison, with 1/3 the sentence on parole after release from prison. For some criminal sexual conduct offenses, the defendant may have to serve a longer term of parole than 1/3 of the sentence.

Probation - Using the Sentencing Guidelines (see Sentencing above) the judge may sentence the defendant to go on probation. While on probation, the defendant will have to meet certain requirements, and if he or she fails to meet those requirements, a prison term (for felony offenses) could be imposed. These requirements may include a term in the county jail, electric home monitoring (bracelet), sex offender evaluation and treatment, chemical dependency evaluation and treatment, reporting to the probation officer, no contact with the victim or victim's family, and registration with the state as a predatory offender.

The Civil Court Option

Sexual assaults are violations of civil law as well as criminal law. Some people turn to civil court as an option for winning money or to keep the offender from having contact with the victim/survivor. See also the SVJI detailed fact sheets on specific steps in the criminal justice process.

Suing for Damages in Civil Court - This means that when an individual has been sexually assaulted, he or she may sue for damages in civil court as well as reporting to law enforcement for a criminal investigation. A big difference between criminal and civil court is that the burden for winning civil damages is lower (a preponderance of evidence) than in criminal court (proof beyond a reasonable doubt).

When a person sues civilly, the purpose is to win money damages from the offender to pay for medical or counseling bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and possibly as a means of punishing the offender by ordering payment of money. For this reason, civil attorneys will usually only sue an offender who has the ability to pay large sums of damages, as the attorney's fee is based on the money damage award. Thus, only a small percentage of cases of sexual assault result in a civil court proceeding as well.

Harassment Restraining Order and Order for Protection - Another form of civil remedy besides suing for damages is to obtain a harassment restraining order (HRO) or order for protection (OFP). The purpose of these documents is to have a court order that the offender have no contact with the victim/survivor, including staying away from the residence or work place. Violation of these orders is a crime, with the punishment depending upon whether the offender has violated similar orders in the past. 

Your local sexual assault program can assist you with obtaining an HRO or OFP, or the forms are available at the court administrator's office in your county. Either document may be used if a sexual assault took place, but there are some differences. An HRO is used where there is little or no relationship between the offender and the victim/survivor. Thus, when they live in separate households or have been dating for a short time, an HRO is probably appropriate. An OFP is used where the two people live in the same household, have a child in common, or have a significant dating relationship.

Learn more in this SVJI fact sheet: Civil Protective Orders: Harassment Restraining Orders and Orders for Protection 

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