Criminal Justice 101

In an effort to familiarize citizens with the criminal justice system, we offer the following overview of the process in Knox County.  None of the information provided below relates to a specific case or individual, and it is a generalized summary to be used for educational purposes only.

Classes of Offenses

The Tennessee Constitution charges the District Attorney General with the duty to prosecute violations of Tennessee state laws.  These crimes are divided into five (5) classes of felony offenses, Class A through Class E, and three (3) classes of misdemeanor offenses, Class A through Class C.  Felony charges are distinguished by punishment of at least one (1) year and can range up to life imprisonment (death penalty cases fall into a separate category).  Misdemeanor charges have a maximum punishment of eleven (11) months and twenty-nine (29) days in the County Jail or workhouse.  A defendant may serve some or all of certain sentences on probation rather than in custody.

Prosecution Begins

A criminal prosecution may begin in several different ways.  First, a person commits a crime.  A police officer who witnesses a person committing that crime will typically either arrest the person or will issue that person a misdemeanor citation.  Similarly, a civilian victim of a crime may request that a criminal summons or arrest warrant be issued charging the person with a crime.  An arrest means that the person charged with a crime is going to jail immediately to be booked and processed and may have to make a bond to be released.  They will also be arraigned and given a court date.  If a person being charged with a crime is served with a misdemeanor citation or a criminal summons, then he/she is told to report to the City-County Building at a particular date and time to be booked, processed, and arraigned.  He/she is then assigned a court date.

If the police officer did not witness the misdemeanor crime but has probable cause to believe that the person committed the crime, then the officer must seek an arrest warrant to bring that person into custody.  However, an officer may arrest a person who committed a felony even if the felony was not committed in the officer’s presence as long as the officer has probable cause.  Probable Cause is a legal term that means that there is a higher probability than not that the person committed the crime.  This standard of proof is required for a Magistrate or Judge to issue warrants (including search warrants).  It is also the standard of proof required for a Judge to find in favor of the State at a preliminary hearing and for the Grand Jury to determine if a case should go to trial in Criminal Court.

Most criminal cases involve an arrest warrant.  An arrest warrant is a written document charging a person with committing a crime.  Warrants are issued after enough proof is presented to the Magistrate or Judge to meet the probable cause standard.  Any of the Justices of the Supreme Court, Judges from the Circuit and Criminal Courts, General Sessions Court Judges, or Judicial Commissioners can serve as a Magistrate.  Knox County has five Magistrates who are appointed to set bonds, sign arrest warrants, and issue search warrants.

General Sessions Court

The criminal justice process has three stages in Tennessee.  The first stage takes place in the General Sessions Courts.  In Knox County, the General Sessions Criminal Courts are divided into Misdemeanor Court (First Sessions), DUI Court (Second Sessions), Felony Court (Third Sessions), and Cited/Bonded Arraignment Court (Fourth Sessions). (There is also a Fifth Sessions Court that has jurisdiction over civil matters.)

Five (5) Judges preside over all matters in the each of the General Sessions Courts.  These Judges are popularly elected for eight (8) year terms and rotate through the courts on a five-week schedule.

At the General Sessions level, a defendant charged with a misdemeanor has four options:

  1. Plead guilty to the charge(s);
  2. Have a preliminary hearing where in order for the case to proceed to the Grand Jury, the State must show probable cause that the defendant committed the crime;
  3. Send the case to the Grand Jury without a preliminary hearing; or
  4. Have a bench trial to determine defendant’s guilt or innocence. (The State must agree to defendant‘s request for a bench trial and also must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).

At the General Sessions level, a defendant charged with a felony has four options:

  1. Have a preliminary hearing where in order for the case to proceed to the Grand Jury, the State must show probable cause that the defendant committed the crime;
  2. Send the case to the Grand Jury without a preliminary hearing;
  3. Enter into an agreement with the State to plead guilty to a lesser, misdemeanor charge (only if the State offers him/her this choice); or
  4. Enter into an agreement with the State to by-pass the Grand Jury proceedings and plead guilty to the felony charge in Criminal Court. This type of plea is called a “Plea by Information.”

The General Sessions Court cannot accept pleas on felony charges.

Grand Jury

The Grand Jury is a body of thirteen (13) citizens of Knox County who hear evidence of crimes and determine whether there is probable cause to require the defendant to stand trial in Criminal Court.  If the Grand Jury finds that there is probable cause to require the defendant to stand trial, then the Grand Jury returns a True Bill. If the Grand Jury does not find probable cause, then the Grand Jury returns a No True Bill. 

Cases reach the Grand Jury in one of two ways – either from the General Sessions Court or directly from the District Attorney General’s Office.  Cases originating in the General Sessions Courts become Indictments if the Grand Jury returns a True Bill.  Cases that the District Attorney’s Office initiates in the Grand Jury become Presentments if the Grand Jury returns a True Bill.  Presentments require the defendant to be arrested and to make a bond because these cases are not a continuation of an existing case from General Sessions Courts.  Indictments are a continuation of an existing case, so usually the original bond will continue to be accepted.

Criminal Court

After the Grand Jury has returned an Indictment or Presentment, the defendant will appear in Criminal Court for arraignment.  Arraignment is an initial appearance where a defendant is formally advised of the charge(s) against him/her.  At this stage a defendant may enter a plea of guilty, a plea of not guilty, or reserve entry of plea until a later date. If the defendant has not already hired an attorney, the Court will inquire as to whether he/she qualifies financially for an appointed attorney.  If so, an attorney will be appointed for the defendant.

There are three (3) divisions of the Knox County Criminal Court.  The Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s Office assigns every case to one of the Criminal Courts.  At arraignment, the judge may schedule a series of court dates for each case including a trial date, a plea deadline, and a deadline for filing or arguing motions.  A defendant does not have to plead guilty to any charge, but he/she may have the opportunity to enter into a plea agreement with the State if he/she chooses to do so. If a defendant does not enter into a plea agreement, then the judge will schedule his/her case for trial.

Both the State and a defendant have a right to a jury trial. The trial jury is composed of twelve (12) citizens who will hear the case and decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence based upon the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.  A defendant may also waive his/her right to a jury trial and request a “Bench Trial.” If the State also agrees to a bench trial, then the judge alone will hear the defendant’s case and decide whether or not the defendant is guilty.  When a case is set for trial, the Criminal Court Clerk will issue subpoenas to witnesses ordering those witnesses to appear and testify at trial.

Soon after a defendant is either found guilty at trial or accepts a plea agreement, the judge will impose a sentence.  When a judge imposes a sentence, he/she announces his/her decision regarding the formal legal consequences of the defendant’s criminal charge.  The judge can order a defendant to serve a period of time in confinement, on probation, on an alternative sentence, or a combination thereof.  At sentencing, victims may be given the opportunity to address the Court and provide a Victim Impact Statement.


Defendants convicted in a Criminal Court trial have a right to appeal the conviction to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and thereafter may be able to apply to the Tennessee Supreme Court for further appeal, if applicable.  Once the defendant has exhausted his/her direct appeal rights, he/she then has the right to file a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief back in the trial court.  If the Post-Conviction Petition fails, then he/she can go back to the Court of Criminal Appeals and to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  After exhausting state appellate remedies, the defendant may apply to the federal court system for relief.

Juvenile Court

Juvenile Court is a court of exclusive jurisdiction over children under the age of eighteen (18) who violate state or municipal law or who are unruly, abused, neglected, or dependent.  Juvenile Court utilizes rehabilitative efforts to address criminal behavior and to reunify families whenever possible.  Juvenile offenders may be placed on probation and/or be required to complete classes and programs that target the needs and behaviors of youth.  When necessary, extremely severe and serious juvenile offenders are transferred to adult court, where the juvenile case is then handled as an adult case.  The District Attorney’s Office works with Juvenile Court to prosecute offenders and to seek transfer of the more serious cases.  The District Attorney’s Office also works collaboratively with the Court and the Knox County School System in an effort to identify and address children who are truant as well as parents who fail to send their children to school.