Understanding Criminal Cases

Legal Reference

Maryland Rules of Procedures, Title 4. Criminal Causes; Maryland Code, Criminal Proceedings

People's Law Library of Maryland Criminal Law Information

What is a Criminal Case?

A Maryland criminal case starts with an accusation of a defendant breaking the law. The State of Maryland is the party that prosecutes criminal charges in court. A defendant who is found guilty will be punished by the State Court, often with fines or incarceration. Traffic cases are considered criminal cases.

Cases in the Circuit Court

Cases involving criminal and incarcerable traffic offenses begin by any of the following 4 ways:

  • A warrantless arrest by a police officer pursuant to Sections §2-202 through §2-206 of the Maryland Code, Criminal Proceedings, Title 2. Law Enforcement Procedures: Arrest Process.
  • An arrest pursuant to a warrant issued by a District Court Commissioner based on a sworn Statement of Charges (complaint) by a police officer or other individual alleging a criminal offense for which the Commissioner finds probable cause that the offense occurred. The Commissioner issues a summons ordering the defendant (accused) to appear in court in most minor cases.
  • An Information filed either in the District Court or the Circuit Court by the State’s Attorney Office. The Court determines whether to issue a summons or an arrest warrant based on the State's Attorney’s Office request.
  • A citation written by a law enforcement or peace officer alleging an offense.

Online Maryland laws available from the Maryland State Law Library.

The State’s Attorney’s Office reviews felony and serious misdemeanor cases to determine whether they should be handled in the Circuit Court or kept in the District Court. In Circuit Court cases, the State’s Attorney’s Office presents them to the Grand Jury for Indictment or files an Information – the first paper filed in criminal prosecution stating the crime for which the defendant is accused – to start the criminal proceeding. These cases are generally called cases “originating” in the Circuit Court and are subject to the statutory 180-day speedy trial constraints. Typical Circuit Court criminal cases include most felony charges except for some that may be heard in the District Court.

District Court Appeals and Instant Jury-Demands

Other criminal cases handled by the Circuit Court are those that are handled in the District Court but transferred to the Circuit Court. This occurs when a defendant demands a jury trial or when a defendant appeals a sentence received in a District Court proceeding, including sentences imposed for violation of probation.


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Criminal-related forms may be found under the Forms page.

Download the Law Library quick reference guide on criminal cases (PDF)

Not understanding all this terminology? Visit the glossary.

Clerk’s Office employees may not give legal advice nor tell you what to say in your pleadings.

Basic Steps in Criminal Cases

The State’s Attorney’s Office initiates all criminal cases either through Grand Jury Indictment or filing of an Information. A Summons is then issued to the defendant as notification that he/she has been charged and needs to appear in court on a specified date. A warrant may also be issued to hold the defendant in custody.

At the defendant’s first appearance in court, called a Scheduling Hearing, the judge informs the defendant of the right to have counsel and the importance of the assistance of counsel as well as the nature of the charges against him/her.

The judge will also set dates for the remainder of the case based on the case track. While court proceedings are pre-scheduled according to the Criminal Differentiated Case Management (DCM) Plan (PDF) when the case is filed, the schedule can be modified by motion or agreement of parties. The following are some of the critical steps:

  • Discovery (disclosure of information to be submitted to the Court at trial) and filing of pretrial motions (requests to the Court to suppress the evidence and/or statements taken from the defendant at the time of the arrest, to transfer the case to Juvenile Court, etc.) must be completed before the Motions Hearing.
  • Based on the information provided during Discovery, the defendant may decide to plead guilty, and the parties may reach an agreement on the number and type of charges to be brought against the defendant and/or the sentence(s) to be imposed on him or her. These matters are discussed at the Disposition Hearing, where the presiding judge takes the plea and sentence based on the agreement reached by the State’s Attorney and defense counsel. However, when the defendant does not plead guilty, the case goes to Trial.
  • At the trial, the presiding judge or a jury determines whether the defendant is guilty of the alleged crime beyond reasonable doubt based on the evidence presented before the Court. If a defendant has been found guilty, he/she may file for an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. If qualified, a defendant may also apply for an expungement of his/her records.

Fingerprinting for Background Checks

The Criminal Department does NOT offer fingerprinting services for background checks.

If you need a background check for employment purposes, adoptions, or another reason, contact the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, phone: 410-764-4501, 888-795-0011 (toll-free), Monday-Friday, 8:00 am-5:00 pm.

Differentiated Case Management (DCM) Guidelines for Criminal Cases

DCM is characterized by the early differentiation of cases entering the justice system in terms of the nature and extent of judicial/justice system resources they will require. Each case is assigned to the appropriate case track that allows for the performance of pretrial tasks and allocates the appropriate level of judicial and other system resources, minimizing processing delays. Established mechanisms avoid multiple court appearances and assure the timely provision of resources for the expeditious processing and resolution of cases on each track.

There are 4 tracks in criminal cases. Tracks are numeric categories assigned to each case that drive how dates are scheduled and time standards are met.

For more information, visit the What are DCM Tracks? page.

Download the Criminal DCM Plan, revised July 2010 (PDF)

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