Kris Seago
Government/Political Science
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Full Course
Academic Lower Division
Austin Community College
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    Texas’ Civil and Criminal Justice Processes


    Texas’ Civil and Criminal Justice Processes

    Learning Objective

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • ​​​​​​​Explain the judicial procedures associated with civil lawsuits and criminal cases


    This section explores Texas' civil and criminal processes.

    Texas’ Civil Law Processes

    Unlike the criminal justice system, which has an intentional bias in favor of the accused, the civil justice system is meant to be like a balanced scale, with neither side having any special advantage.

    A civil case results from a disagreement or dispute between two or more individuals or organizations. The party bringing the civil suit is the plainti. The party being sued is the defendant. Civil suits often involve disagreements about money or property, but also include divorce, child custody, contracts, protective orders, and evictions.

    Civil lawsuits can often take complex and unpredictable routes through the legal system, but here are the usual, basic steps:

    Complaint – In an initial petition to a civil court, the plaintiff must describe the facts of the situation and what relief is being sought from the court.

    Summons – The defendant in a civil case must be officially served by the court with notice of the lawsuit and given the necessary information about how to respond.

    Discovery – For many civil lawsuits, both sides are given a period of discovery, during which both sides are required to share information and evidence with each other.

    Settlement – Before going to trial, most civil lawsuits are resolved through settlement – a formal agreement in which the plaintiff agrees to forego continuing to trial in exchange for money and/or some other specific consideration from the defendant. In some cases, parties will agree to seek the help of a mediator to resolve the dispute amicably.

    Trial – If no settlement is agreed upon, a trial is held. Unlike a criminal trial, where the prosecution must show guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a party to a civil trial can prevail simply by “a preponderance of the evidence.” Juries decide not only who wins, but often the specific financial amount of damages awarded.

    Appeal – The losing party in a civil case is entitled to appeal the court’s decision to a higher court. An appeal is not a “do- over.” The job of an appeals court is to review the way the trial was conducted. An appeals court can affirm or reverse the lower court decision or can remand the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

    The Criminal Justice Process in Texas

    There are several procedural steps in the Texas criminal justice process that occur after a person is arrested and prior to the determination of innocence or guilt. In Texas, as in most other states, this process can take months or even years.

    The Texas court systems have two conflicting goals: they must protect the people and the accused.

    Therefore, the state of Texas must ensure that every person is treated equally in legal matters - this is known as due process. The steps in the Texas criminal justice process are: 1. Arrest, 2. Indictment, 3. Plea bargaining, 4. Trial, and 5. Post-trial.

    1. Arrest

    One aspect pertinent to arrest is the Miranda Rights. Miranda Rights derived from the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda vs. Arizona (1966). During the Miranda case, the question was whether or not procedures must be utilized by law enforcement officials to ensure that an individual’s 5th Amendment Self-incrimination rights are not violated. The United States Supreme Court ruled that a person must be made aware of their rights prior to being questioned.

    Once an arrest is made, the defendant is arraigned and bond is set. Arraignment is when a defendant is formally charged and made aware of their rights. After this, the defendant may be released on bail until the trial, although bail is not guaranteed (Texas Constitution Article 1, Section 11 & 11a-b). Bail is money that is provided by the defendant to ensure his or her appearance in court. Typically, if the defendant doesn't appear for trial, the bail is forfeited. If the defendant appears as required, the bail money is returned. If a person cannot provide bail or cannot pay a bondsman, the accused may be released on personal recognizance—the defendant's promise to appear.

    2. Indictment

    If the charge is a felony, then an indictment must occur for the process to continue. A grand jury is in charge of determining whether there is sufficient evidence to hold the accused for trial. 9 out of 12 grand jury members must agree that the process   can move forward. Grand juries do not find people guilty of a crime; they will either vote a “true bill” (finding probable cause that the accused committed a crime), or they will return a “No bill” (they did not find probable cause). A grand jury indictment is not a conviction; the accused is held for criminal trial only if the grand jury voted a "true bill."

    3. Plea Bargaining

    After indictment for a felony, there will likely be a number of pretrial hearings in which the accused will formally plead guilty or not guilty.

    A plea bargain (also plea agreement or plea deal) is any agreement in a criminal case between the prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant agrees to plead guilty or nolo contendere to a particular charge in return for some concession from the prosecutor. Due to the high frequency of overcrowded dockets, plea bargaining is the most common method for resolving criminal cases in Texas to avoid going to trial.

    Although plea bargaining can occur during a trial and even after a finding of guilt (but before sentencing), the prosecution and defense will often discuss punishment in exchange for a guilty plea and reach an agreement before the trial.

    Plea bargaining can present a dilemma to defense attorneys, in that they must choose between vigorously seeking a good deal for their present client, or maintaining a good relationship with the prosecutor for the sake of helping future clients. However, defense attorneys are required by the ethics of the bar to defend the present client's interests over the interests of others.

    Violation of this rule may result in disciplinary sanctions being imposed against the defense attorney by the appropriate state's bar association.

    4. Trial

    If the case reaches trial, the defendant may choose to have a trial by jury (guaranteed by the Texas Constitution Article 1, Section 15); or waive that right and choose trial by a presiding judge. Texas utilizes an adversary system, which means the two sides will attempt to convince the jury or judge why they are correct. For both felonies and misdemeanors, decisions by criminal juries   must be unanimous, and the standard of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt." If the defendant is acquitted (found not guilty), he or she is set free. If the defendant is found guilty, there will be a jail or prison sentence, or probation and/or a fine.

    5. Post Trial

    Post-trial is the final step where the defendant, if found guilty, will receive a form of rehabilitation or punishment. Some examples of rehabilitation or punishment are prison time, probation, parole, house arrest, and fines. In some cases, the judge may allow probation, or community supervision, rather than a jail or prison sentence.

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