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Anatomy of Criminal Case

There are many things that happen throughout a criminal case, starting with an arrest and criminal complaint and ending in either a plea agreement or a trial.  The timing and order of events in a criminal case in Iowa is governed by the Iowa rules of criminal procedure.  The procedure is different depending on whether the criminal charge is a simple misdemeanor, or an indictable offense (a serious misdemeanor, aggravated misdemeanor, or a felony).  Additionally, these rules and the procedure listed below are specific to Iowa.  A federal criminal case follows the federal rules of civil procedure, which are different than those found in Iowa.


A criminal case generally begins with an arrest.  The Iowa Code defines an arrest as follows: "Arrest is the taking of a person into custody when and in the manner authorized by law, including restraint of the person or the person's submission to custody."  Iowa Code Section 804.5.

After an arrest, the police have the option of either taking a person to jail, or releasing the person and setting a time for them to appear.  In either event, a person will have an initial appearance in front of a judge.

Initial Appearance

After an arrest, a person will have an initial appearance in front of a judge or magistrate.  The procedure for initial appearances can vary by county.  In Johnson County (where Iowa City is located), a person who was taken to jail will see the judge through a closed circuit television system.  The judge will read the charges to the person and set a bond.  The judge will also inform the person of certain rights that they have.  One of these rights, if the person qualifies, is the right to court appointed counsel.

Preliminary Hearing

The next step in the process is a preliminary hearing.  If the person is still in custody, the hearing must be held within 10 days of the arrest.  If the person is not in custody, the hearing must be held within 20 days of the arrest.  The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether there is probable cause to continue holding the person and to continue with the case.

There are a couple of situations where the preliminary hearing is not held.  First, if the prosecutor files the Trial Information (the formal charges) before the date of the hearing, the hearing is not held.  Second, where the Defendant waives the hearing.  The Defendant will generally waive the hearing unless he or she is still in custody.

Formal Charges

The formal charges can be filed either through indictment or by filing the Trial Information.  The Trial Information  The case against the Defendant will move forward at this point only if the evidence, if unexplained, would warrant a conviction by a jury.  The Trial Information must be filed within 45 days of the date of arrest.  The court will dismiss the charge with prejudice if it is filed more than 45 days after the arrest, unless there was good cause for the failure to file.  The State cannot refile a charge that has been dismissed with prejudice.


After the formal charges are filed, the Court will set a date for a hearing called an arraignment.  An arraignment is a hearing where the Defendant pleads guilty or not guilty.  This is generally waived by filing a signed document called a Written Arraignment and Plea of Not Guilty.

After the arraignment, the Court will set a date for a pretrial conference.  The pretrial conference is generally set out far enough from the date of the arraignment to allow the parties to conduct discovery and attempt to come to a negotiated plea agreement.  A person does have a right to be brought to trial within 90 days of the filing of the formal charges, but this is often waived.  If the right is not waived, there will be a much shorter period between the arraignment and the pretrial conference.

Interim Period

There are many things counsel does during the time period between the arraignment and the pretrial conference, such as filing pretrial motions, obtaining and providing discovery and negotiating the terms of a possible plea bargain with the State.

Pretrial Conference

A pretrial conference takes place at the courthouse.  This conference is used to discuss plea offers and to discuss whether the Defendant is going to proceed to trial.  If the parties have not agreed to a plea agreement by the end of the pretrial conference, the case will be set to proceed to trial.

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