Nearly every week, this newspaper publishes a rundown of cases in Lamoille County Superior Court.
The court has four divisions — criminal, civil, probate and family court. The newspaper report deals entirely with criminal court, which does the bulk of its work on Wednesdays, although it meets many Mondays, too.
The report lists two types of court action: the arraignment, which opens a case, and the disposition, which closes it.
A criminal case begins when law enforcement officials issue someone a citation to appear in court, either by arresting the person for an alleged crime or by serving them paperwork telling them they must appear in court.
A note on terminology: Although the phrase “police charged so-and-so” appears in a lot of crime reporting, police officers do not have the authority to charge someone with a crime. That authority rests with the county prosecutor’s office — the state’s attorneys or their deputies.
The initial court appearance is the arraignment. The person being charged with the crime has the opportunity to plead either guilty or not guilty, or no contest — not admitting guilt to a crime but allowing the court to mete out punishment for it, anyway.
The overwhelming majority of people plead not guilty at arraignment, which essentially begins the criminal case’s journey through the court.
Some cases can last years, and some are resolved within weeks. In a recent Morrisville shooting case, the arraignment was in the fall of 2015 and both sides just came to an agreement early last month.
Arraignments are listed on the court calendar as confidential cases. They are assigned a docket number, but the name of the defendant is not revealed until after he or she enters a plea.
Also made public at that point is the criminal charging affidavit — the detailed police narrative of the crimes alleged against the defendant.
However, the name of the suspect must be made public upon arrest, on the constitutional principle that no person may be deprived of liberty in secret.
Wrapping up the case
Besides the affidavit, the other key source of information for the court report is the docket sheet. That is a rundown of everything that has happened in the case, arranged by date, starting with the arraignment.
The docket sheet lists motions filed, status conference hearings, evidence introduced, changing of charges, jury draws and more. It concludes with the disposition, where the defendant pleads guilty or no contest, is found guilty or not guilty by a jury, or the case is dismissed by the judge or at the request of the prosecutors.
If a defendant is guilty, by plea or by jury, the docket sheet also includes sentencing information — sentences that defendants must serve or fines for them to pay. Not all sentences result in jail time — the judge can order guilty parties to serve probation, or sentence them to home confinement or a work crew.
Sentences usually include a minimum and maximum amount of time. After the judge issues the sentence, the fate of the guilty party rests with the state Department of Corrections.