If you have been charged with a crime in the State of Tennessee, your case will most likely begin in the General Sessions Court. There are limited circumstances under which a case will begin at the grand jury level, but the first court appearance in most criminal cases is in General Sessions Court. Everything from driving on a revoked license to criminal homicide is heard by the General Sessions Judge. It is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer prior to your initial appearance in the General Sessions Court. The sooner you bring your attorney on board the better.
The State of Tennessee is made up of 31 Judicial Districts. Most of these Judicial Districts are made up of multiple counties, and each county has a separate General Sessions Court. In some instances, there are municipal courts which exercise the jurisdiction of a General Sessions Court.
The General Sessions Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. The General Sessions Court has the authority to dispose of misdemeanor cases but only has jurisdiction to conduct a preliminary hearing where felony charges are involved. Unless your attorney is able to negotiate an agreement that involves a plea to a reduced charge (misdemeanor), you must choose between having a preliminary hearing or waiving your right to a hearing and allowing the case to proceed to the grand jury for review.
If an individual has been charged with a misdemeanor offense, he or she may enter a plea of guilty and receive a sentence from the General Sessions Court. If the same individual seeks to persist in a plea of not guilty and exercise his or her right to a jury trial, a preliminary hearing can be conducted in the General Sessions Court to determine whether there is sufficient probable cause for the case to proceed to the grand jury. A third option for one charged with a misdemeanor offense would be to seek a bench trial in the General Sessions Court.
A bench trial in General Sessions Court does not involve a jury. The judge will act as the finder of fact in addition to applying the law in the case. In order to proceed with a bench trial in General Sessions Court, it is necessary that the State and the Defense agree to a trial on the merits. If the Judge finds the defendant not guilty, then the matter is closed. If the judge finds the defendant guilty, then the defendant has a right to appeal to the Circuit/Criminal Court. The right to appeal is de novo which means that the case essentially starts anew thus requiring a new trial if the defendant persists in a plea of not guilty.
In short, the General Sessions Court offers four basic options for those accused of a misdemeanor and three for those accused of a felony. The options for misdemeanor offenses are (1) plead guilty, (2) have a bench trial, (3) have a preliminary hearing, or (4) waive the right to a preliminary hearing and agree to have the case bound over the grand jury. In the case of a felony, the options are (1) plead to a reduced charge (misdemeanor), (2) have a preliminary hearing, or (3) waive the right to a preliminary hearing and agree to have the case bound over to the grand jury.
The foregoing discussion of General Sessions Court in Tennessee is only a brief overview of what to expect, and as you can imagine, there are a number of pitfalls that you will want to avoid as your case proceeds through the criminal justice system. The criminal defense lawyers at Stephens Law, PLC are available to assist you with your defense. As former prosecutors, they possess the tools and experience needed to mount a defense on your behalf.