Criminal Defense Step By Step

Criminal Defense Step By Step

Stages of Iowa Criminal Defense

If you've been charged with a crime in Iowa and are considering criminal defense options, here's a step by step guide to what will happen. 

Detection of Crime

In order to stop you, police need "reasonable suspicion."  In order to arrest you, police need "probable cause."

Know your rights!

You have a right to remain silent.

You have the right to an attorney.  Your right to an attorney actually has two parts.  You have a fifth amendment right to counsel and a sixth amendment right to counsel.  This guarantees you that you have the right to counsel both during police interrogations and during critical stages of the criminal process.

You have a right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Complaints and Citations

When you're arrested, the police prepare and file an initial complaint.  If you're charged with a traffic offense, the police will write a citation instead.  This initial complaint or citation often forms the basis for your charges.

Warrant and Summons to Appear

Once a judge reads an officer's sworn complaint or citation, she may issue an arrest warrant.  Alternatively, the judge might send you a summons to appear. 

Initial Appearance

Once you're arrested or served with a summons to appear, your first court appearance is usually the initial appearance.  Your initial appearance will happen within 24 hours of arrest if you're in custody.  At your initial appearance, the judge will tell you what you're being charged with, what the possible consequences are, and how much you'll have to pay to bond out of custody.

If what you're being charged with could result in possible jail time, your initial appearance is when the judge will tell you that you have a right to an attorney.  The judge will ask you some questions about your income or you'll be given a form to fill out.  This form will help determine your ability to pay for court-appointed counsel.  You'll have the opportunity at the initial appearance to tell the court if you want the court to appoint counsel for you, if you want to hire your own attorney, or if you want to represent yourself.

It's important to know that in most cases, you'll still be expected to pay the state back if you get court-appointed counsel.

If you want to hire your own attorney, you'll let the court know this.

If you choose to represent yourself, you're what's called a "pro se" defendant.  Pro se defendants are just defendants who represent themselves. Appearing pro se is generally inadvisable.

The formal document that charges you in Iowa is an "indictment" if you're charged by a grand jury.  More commonly, you'll be charged with in a document called a "trial information."

If you've been charged with an "indictable offense," the judge will tell you when your next court appearance, the preliminary hearing, is.

Attorney Options

Court Appointed Counsel

If you make little enough, the court will offer to appoint counsel for you.  Usually, this is through the State Public Defender's office.  If the state public defender's office has a "conflict" on your case or otherwise can't represent you, the judge's clerk will assign you private appointed counsel. 

Whether your counsel is the SPD's office or private appointed counsel, you'll be responsible for paying the state back for your representation if you're "reasonably able" to do so.

In Iowa, the order to pay attorneys' fees usually happens before the close of the case, which means you'll still have a right to counsel at that point.  If you can't afford to pay, tell your attorney.  The court is required to exercise discretion in determining whether or not you're required to pay the state back for your representation.

Hiring an Attorney

You can hire an attorney at nearly any point in the criminal process.  Many attorneys won't take on representation right before a trial because they need more time. 

If you think you might like to hire a criminal lawyer, it's a good idea to do that early on so your lawyer as as much time as possible to review options in your case.

Some criminal defense lawyers charge hourly for their help. In Iowa, a criminal attorney's hourly rate could be as low as $150 or it could be $500 or more.  An attorney's hourly rate may be different for trial work or appellate work.

Some attorneys may offer you a flat fee for representation.  This flat fee will include certain things but may not include others.  Flat fees usually don't include representation at trial or representation on appeal.

Whether your attorney offers an hourly rate or a flat fee for their services, make sure you understand what you'll be billed for and what additional expenses you may incur.  For example, fees may be different if your case goes to trial or if you need an appeal.  Extra expenses, such as costs for depositions, court reporters, and private investigators may be billed separately from (although possibly on the same invoice as) your lawyer's billable hours.

Pro Se Representation

If you choose not to hire an attorney or to have the court appoint one for you, you're now a pro se defendant.  Welcome to Iowa Criminal Defense 🙂

Iowa Criminal Defense Pre-Trial Processes

Preliminary Hearing

If you're in custody, your preliminary hearing will happen within 10 days.  If you're out of custody, your preliminary hearing will happen within 20 days.

Indictment or Trial Information

Indictments and trial information are the formal documents used to charge defendants in Iowa.  If you have a defense lawyer, they'll go over your charging document with you.

Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure require speedy indictment.  You have to be formally charged within 45 days after arrest (...which appears to mean within 45 days of your initial appearance.)  If you aren't charged by then, your attorney may request that charges against you are dismissed.  If charges against you are dismissed for this reason, they may be dismissed "without prejudice," which means the state will have the option to charge you again.

The TI should be filed before your arraignment date.


At an arraignment, the court wants to make sure your name is spelled correctly and that you understand the charges against you and what your charging options are.

At arraignment, we often enter a plea of not guilty, waive the formal reading of the charges, and ask that the court set the matter for pretrial and trial.

If you have an attorney, they may have you do a written arraignment.  A written arraignment pretty much involves your attorney writing down that your name is spelled correctly, that you're able to understand what you're charged with, and that you want to plead not guilty.  You'll sign a written arraignment in front of a notary public.  Your attorney will file your arraignment.  If the court accepts your written arraignment, you won't have the in-person arraignment.

There are some times when the court won't accept a written arraignment, particularly if you don't have much formal education, don't understand English very well, or have some types of mental illness that affect your ability to understand the proceedings.  It's important for the court to make sure you understand what's happening.

Speedy Trial

At your arraignment or in your written arraignment, you'll tell the court whether you demand your right to a speedy trial or whether you waive your right to a speedy trial.

Invoking your right to a speedy trial means you can get things done and out of the way.  It also means the State won't have as much time to prepare for your trial -- but nor will your lawyer.

Discuss with your Iowa criminal defense lawyer whether you want to waive your right to speedy trial or not.

Waiving your right to speedy trial will allow for more time negotiating possible plea deals with the county attorneys.  It will also give your attorney more time to prepare for a possible trial. 

Pretrial Motions

The Iowa Rules of Criminal Procedure specify a time for filing pretrial motions.  If you want to claim that you have an alibi, that you acted in self-defense, or that you were insane at the time the alleged offense was committed, your attorney will need to notify the court about these claims during the time permitted for pretrial motions.


You can file for "discovery" in your case.  If you file for discovery in a criminal case, you open the door for "reciprocal discovery," in which the state has the right to collect certain information from you.

If you file for discovery, you and your lawyer will get certain information from the State.

Depositions may happen during discovery.  Witnesses swear to tell the truth at depositions.  During depositions, your defense lawyer and the prosecutor question witnesses.  A court reporter types an official transcript of these questions and answers.  Witnesses' deposition answers can be important trial evidence.

Non-Trial Ways to End a Case

Plea Bargains

Most cases end with plea bargains.  In a plea bargain, the state will ask that you plead to one or more charges.  Sometimes, the charges are the ones you're initially charged with.  They may be different charges instead.

A guilty plea to any charge has to be "knowing and voluntary" and there has to be a "factual basis" for it.

Knowing and Voluntary

Factual basis

There has to be a factual basis for a guilty plea.  In most cases, if you're pleading guilty to an offense, you will have to tell the Court that you did something that is a crime.


Sometimes, the state dismisses the charges if certain things happen or if they come into possession of information that makes going to trial unappealing for them.

Iowa Criminal Defense Trials

Iowa trials are either bench trials or jury trials.

Bench trials are trials in front of judges.  There are no juries at bench trials.  Sometimes, defendants waive their right to a jury and choose instead to have a bench trial.  Other times, such as with simple misdemeanors, defendants receive only a bench trial unless they make a specific request for a jury trial.

Jury Trials

Voir Dire

The first step in a jury trial is voir dire.  At voir dire, we ask potential jurors a bunch of questions and then gently send some of them home.

For a simple misdemeanor, you have to request a jury trial within 10 days of entering a plea of guilty.  If you don’t make that request in time, you will have a bench trial.  A bench trial is a criminal defense trial that is in front of a judge instead of a jury.  If you don’t make that jury request in time, you will have a bench trial.

After voir dire, your trial starts.

Iowa Criminal Defense Arguments at Trial

The burden is on the State to prove you guilty of every element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt.  You have a constitutional right to be presumed innocent.  The presumption of innocence remains with you throughout the trial, unless and until the government convinces the fact finder (that means the judge or jury) of your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Opening Statements

The State goes first at trial.

The prosecuting attorney will make an opening statement.  After that, your Iowa criminal attorney will make an opening statement on your behalf.

Direct and Cross-Examination

After opening statements, the prosecutor will call one or more witnesses.  The prosecuting attorney will ask those witnesses questions.  This is called direct examination.

After the prosecutor has finished asking a witness questions, it’s the Polk County, Iowa criminal defense lawyer’s turn to ask questions to that same witness.  This is called cross-examination.

After the prosecuting attorney finishes calling witnesses, your criminal defense attorney in Iowa will call defense witnesses.  Sometimes, the defense will call the same witnesses that the State called.  The reason for this is that during cross-examination, your defense attorney Des Moines Iowa was limited in what they could ask the witness.  They weren’t allowed to ask questions that were “beyond the scope” of what the State asked during direct examination.

Defendant's Right to Testify and Right Against Self-Incrimination

As a criminal defendant, you have a right to testify on your own behalf.  You also have the right not to testify.  This is the “right against self-incrimination.”  Your criminal lawyer will offer you legal counsel or legal advice on whether you should choose to testify or not.  Ultimately, though, that choice will be yours to make.

Exhibits and Evidence

Both the prosecution and the Iowa lawyer representing you will be able to introduce exhibits, which are evidence.  The prosecutor and the Ankeny criminal defense lawyer representing you will “lay the foundation” for introducing the evidence through a witness.  After that, they will mark the exhibit if it hasn’t already been marked.  The lawyer will formally offer the marked exhibit into evidence.


The government lawyer can object to evidence for a number of reasons, including that the evidence hasn’t had a proper foundation established.  Your criminal lawyer Iowa can make objections too.  When someone makes objections, the Court will either sustain or overrule the objection.  That means that the judge will either agree with the objecting lawyer that the evidence shouldn’t come in or they will overrule the objection and let the exhibit come into evidence anyway.

Closing Arguments

After questioning all witnesses and offering all evidence, the State will make its closing argument.  Your Iowa criminal attorney will make her closing argument.  The prosecutor might take a moment for rebuttal.

Jury Instructions

After that, the judge will read the jury instructions to the jurors.

The jury will consider the evidence in your case and the instructions.  They might do this very quickly or they could take hours or days.  Finally, though, they will return a verdict.

End of Trial

If the jury finds you Not Guilty, it’s all over.  Congratulations!  You’re done!

If the jury finds you Guilty, then you proceed to sentencing.  You might seek immediate sentencing after the jury finds you guilty.  More often, you will ask to “set sentencing out.”  The Court will set a date for sentencing.


Sentencing in Iowa depends on the charges.  For felonies and certain misdemeanors, presentence investigation will be the first stage in determining what the punishment for conviction will be. After a plea or a conviction, the court will set a sentencing hearing. This hearing might be contemporaneous with your plea or finding of guilt. It might also be set for a different day instead.

Charged with a crime in iowa? We can help!

Call (515) 200-2787 today for a free initial consultation.

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