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My cousin was arrested and charged with a felony. The family isn’t getting much information about what is going on, but we saw on the news that he had been “bound over to Circuit Court.” Does that mean he’s been found guilty and is going to jail? What does “bound over” mean?
To really explain what is meant when a person is “bound over to Circuit Court”, I have to go into a little detail about how the law is structured. (Don’t worry; it won’t last long.) At its most basic level, law is divided into two parts: civil law and criminal law. Civil law addresses how individuals interact with each other. Criminal law addresses how individuals interact with society. This is why in a civil case the injured party sues the defendant, and in a criminal case a prosecutor representing the government (not the injured party) sues the defendant.
Criminal cases are divided into three basic categories:
The procedure for felony cases is much more complicated than it is for misdemeanor cases. The steps for a felony trial in Michigan look like this:
For the state to charge a person with a felony, the state must first prove that there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant was the person who committed it. Different states handle this task in different ways.
Some states and the federal court system use a “grand jury” system. Citizens are summoned for jury duty and sit on a panel. The prosecutor then brings in witnesses and presents evidence before the grand jury. If the grand jury is convinced that there is probable cause to proceed, it issues a document called an “indictment” and the case proceeds to the trial court. If the grand jury is not convinced, the case is dismissed and the defendant is freed. In most jurisdictions, the rules of evidence do not apply in grand jury proceedings and witnesses are not allowed to have their lawyers present. Hence the old saying that a competent prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich.”
Other states do not use grand juries. Instead, a proceeding very similar to a trial takes place in front of a District Court judge. As in a trial, the rules of evidence apply, and the defendant is entitled to have an attorney present and cross-exam witnesses. Each side is given an opportunity to call witnesses, cross-examine the other side’s witnesses, present evidence, and give closing arguments. If the judge is not convinced that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime, the case is dismissed and the defendant set free. If the judge does find probable cause, she issues a document known as an “information”. For all practical purposes, an “information” is essentially the same as an “indictment”: it certifies that the court has found probable cause to charge the defendant with a felony. This is referred to as being “bound over” to Circuit Court. Once this is done, the case essentially starts over at the Circuit Court level and stays there through sentencing.
Michigan has provisions for using both grand juries and preliminary examinations. However, grand juries are rarely used in Michigan, and almost all felony cases are scheduled for preliminary examinations in the district court.
So if your cousin has been “bound over to Circuit Court”, all that has happened is that the judge has issued a finding of probable cause to proceed. This is much different than the burden of proof required at trial (“beyond a reasonable doubt”). In fact, the burden of proof in preliminary examinations is so low that I rarely see a case not bound over to Circuit Court unless the prosecution failed to produce any witnesses (which does happen from time to time).
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Information presented on this site is intended for educational purposes only and does not constitute—and should not be considered a substitute for—legal advice. Neither use of this website nor communications through it (including but not limited to messages in forums or answers in the “Ask a Lawyer” section) create an attorney-client relationship. For legal assistance, contact a lawyer.