How Likely Is a Criminal Charge to Go to Trial?

The United States of America operates a court system based on the English Common Law system, with a plaintiff and a defendant presenting their cases to a judge.

The court system comes in three primary levels: circuit courts, which are the first level of appeal—this is where a New York injury lawyer might find themselves arguing a personal injury case; district courts, or the trial court; and the Supreme Court, which represents the final level of appeal of the federal system, and where particularly egregious cases potentially affecting the legal system on a national level are heard. There is one supreme court, 13 circuit courts, and 94 district courts throughout the country. 

There is also a federal court system that works differently in various ways compared to state courts. Federal courts have limited jurisdiction, which means that they can only hear cases authorized by federal statutes or the United States constitution.

In this three-tiered court system, cases typically start at the lowest courts (trial court), with an opportunity to make appeals at the “Courts of Appeals.” The Supreme court offers the highest level of appeal, and its judgment is final. Trials are rare in this court system, and this article will discuss how many cases go to trial, specifically in criminal cases.

Possession Charges

The decision whether or not a possession case makes it to trial vs. a plea bargain is accepted is one made by the accused in consultation with their lawyers. Whether a drug possession case will make it to trial depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence presented.

Many experienced attorneys are hesitant to take possession cases to trial for a few reasons. The reasons could range from the strength of the evidence, the lawyer’s confidence in the case, the cost involved in going to court, and the experience required to handle possession cases, to mention a few.

According to experts, only 3% of federal drug cases go to trial.

Assault Charges

According to some research, most assault cases (like domestic violence) do not go to trial. 

For defendants in assault cases, after a criminal complaint is filed against you, you will receive an order to appear in court. If the facts are stacked up against you, most lawyers will advise you to make a plea bargain.

In general, no more than 5% of all criminal cases involving assault charges (including felonies and misdemeanors) go to trial. 

Reckless Driving Charges

Reckless driving usually falls under misdemeanors. That means, just like assault charges, not more than 5% of such cases make it to trials.

Anyone charged with reckless driving has the right to a jury or judge trial. However, most reckless driving charges are usually resolved prior to trial. Just like possession charges, if the prosecutor is not willing to come to a negotiation, then you’re better off going to trial.

In this case, the trial should help you seek a not-guilty verdict against all charges instead of pleading guilty.

Felony Charges

Unlike reckless driving charges (mostly considered misdemeanors), felony charges are viewed very seriously by laws and citizens, and defendants are much less frequently offered leniency.

Felony charges usually include crimes like rape, murder, arson, kidnapping, or burglary. However, the punishment for each felony depends on the severity of the crime. Only 2% of all felony cases end up in trial, and most of the accused in such charges are found guilty. Although felony trials are uncommon in the federal criminal system, acquittals in cases that do make it to trial are even more unusual. 

One of the main reasons why most felony charges do not end up in a trial is that many such cases end pursuant to a plea bargain. In most felony cases, plea deals often appear to be the most sensible choice for all parties involved.

To conclude, trials are rare in the American federal criminal justice system, with acquittals even rarer. In general, only two percent of federal criminal defendants end up in a trial. And the few ones that finally make it to trial are mostly found guilty.

Chris Turn

Chris Turn is the pseudonym of a journalist and writer who has published short stories, essays, and criticism in the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the New York Times. Her most recent book, a novel, is The Summoning (The HarperCollins Canada, 2014). She lives with her husband in Toronto.

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