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How the Texas Criminal Justice Process Works

The Marble Team

How the Texas Criminal Justice Process Works

Criminal Law
| 5 min
7 minutes

Until you’re directly affected, you probably haven’t given too much thought to the criminal justice process in Texas. However, if you’ve been the victim of a crime or are arrested and about to be charged, everything suddenly changes.

Because crime dramas are regularly featured on television, many of us have a general idea of how the criminal justice system works. But how does what happens on TV compare to what takes place in a real-life court? 

This easy-to-read guide to the criminal justice process in Texas has the answers. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a better understanding of exactly how the system works. If you have to appear in court - either as a defendant or witness - you’ll be much better prepared.

The Three Levels Of The Texas Court System

There are three levels in the Texas court system:

  • Trial Courts: A state-wide network of courts, including municipal, justice, county-level, and district courts (in order of rising seniority). These handle most criminal trials in Texas.
  • Appellate Courts: If you appeal the verdict of a severe criminal charge, your case will be heard in one of 14 Appellate Courts across Texas. County-level courts handle appeals on lesser charges from municipal and justice courts.
  • Supreme Courts: Texas has two Supreme Courts to handle appeals from the Appellate Courts. The Texas Supreme Court deals with civil appeals, while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is for criminal cases, including defendants on death row.

The seriousness of the charge determines which trial court handles your case. Major crimes like murder or rape count as felonies and are tried at the district level. Lesser offenses like theft or public drunkenness are classed as misdemeanors and tend to be handled by municipal and justice courts. These courts also deal with minor violations (or infractions) like speeding or parking offenses. 

That leaves the county-level courts, which handle higher-level misdemeanors, and more serious civil actions.

Does Texas’ Process Work Differently To Other States?

The justice system in Texas works under the same principles as the rest of the United States: you’re innocent until proven guilty. Accordingly, you’re entitled to due process and a fair, speedy trial, plus you can appeal a verdict if you’re unhappy with it.

Unlike some states that only have one last resort court, Texas has two: the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Texas differs in other ways, too, for example, how legislation is formed and the process for appointing judges.

While the criminal justice process is broadly the same across all 50 states, there are many fundamental differences at the legislative level, interpretations of the law, and sentencing practices. Texas, for example, still permits capital punishment.

The Adversary System Explained

Like nearly all systems of justice, Texas uses the adversary system. In this context, it simply means that there are two sides: one for, and one against, the charge - or put another way,  the prosecution and the defense. The two adversaries must try to convince the judge or jury of the respective merits of their case. 

From Arrest To Verdict: What To Expect 

Before a law enforcement officer can arrest and charge you for a crime, they must have “probable cause” (this is called the investigation phase). Then, after arrest, a set procedure begins, although you may not go through every step. For example, if you plead guilty to a lesser charge via a plea bargain (which is actually what happens most of the time), you’ll avoid a trial. 

So let’s look now at what you can expect to happen in a criminal justice case:


  1. Arrest: After an arrest, you’re booked, photographed, and fingerprinted
  2. Arraignment & Bail/Custody: In front of a judge, the charge you face is formally read to you, and you’re asked for your plea. If you say “not guilty,” the judge then sets a trial date and bail conditions (where applicable)
  3. Pre-trial Hearing/Plea Bargaining: The prosecution and defense meet to discuss your case, the possibility of a plea bargain, or having the case dismissed entirely
  4. Trial: The defendant faces the charge(s) in front of a judge or jury
  5. Verdict: All charges are dropped if the defendant is found not guilty. But with a guilty verdict, the judge must then sentence you

At each of these stages, it’s almost always beneficial to use the services of an expert criminal attorney.

When Your Case Becomes A Federal Problem

If you’re ever accused of a crime, you’re almost certain to be charged in a state court. However, you could be prosecuted in a federal court in cases where there’s a national interest. Various factors constitute a federal interest: these include a crime that takes place on federal land or affects a federal employee, or has an interstate, national, international, constitutional, or governmental dimension.

In general, a federal offense carries heavier punishments and penalties in comparison to the state equivalent. 

What To Expect Post-Trial

There are two further post-trial stages, one mandatory and one optional if you’re found guilty. The mandatory element concerns the sentence handed down to you by the judge. Judges have some discretion, but they must also follow state and/or federal sentencing guidelines. 

The other remaining post-trial stage is to appeal the guilty verdict. Any appeal will always take place in a higher court.

Why You Should Turn To Legal Representation

Being formally charged with any crime is a serious matter, with huge ramifications if you’re found guilty. That’s why it’s so critical to work with a criminal defense attorney. An expert criminal justice lawyer can help you at every stage of the process, from start to finish. They’ll help to ensure that your rights are protected and aim to secure the best possible outcome from your charge.

Although you may have concerns about the cost of hiring the best criminal defense attorney, it’s well worth it if they can get your case dismissed or use a plea bargain to reduce the seriousness of the charge.

Bottom Line

Whether you’re facing a felony or misdemeanor charge, a top criminal defense lawyer can often help improve your case’s outcome, especially if you can involve them early on. Call our experienced team for a free initial case assessment to learn how we can help.


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