The public prosecutor will forward the indictment to the court, which will decide in intermediate proceedings whether or not to proceed to the main proceedings stage, i.e. to a trial.
If the court allows the indictment to go to trial, the main proceedings begin with a court hearing. Court hearings may take place on one day or over several days. The indictment may also be dealt with in expedited proceedings governed by separate rules.
How will the trial proceed?
First of all, the court will determine who is present: the public prosecutor, you and your defence lawyer (if any), and witnesses. The witnesses will then be asked to wait outside the courtroom.
You will be asked to give your personal particulars. You must give your name, address, place of birth, marital status and occupation. You do not need to say how much you earn.
The charge will then be read out.
You will be able to state your view on the accusations made. You do not have to say anything: you may remain silent. The court may not draw any inference against you from your silence. After that the evidence will be produced, i.e. witnesses questioned, expert witnesses heard and/or documents read out.
The public prosecutor and your defence lawyer (if any) will then give their assessments of the evidence and propose that you be convicted or acquitted.
You will have the last word.
The court will then give judgment and state the grounds on which its judgment is based.
Where will the trial take place?
The trial will be held in the place where the public prosecutor brought the charge; there are specific rules governing this aspect. Often the trial takes place in the court with jurisdiction for the area where the offence was committed.
Whether the proceedings will be conducted in the local court (Amtsgericht), the regional court (Landgericht) or the higher regional court (Oberlandesgericht) depends on the likely penalty for the offence. If a fine or a term of imprisonment of no more than two years can be expected, the case will be heard by a single judge sitting in the local court. If a sentence of two to four years’ imprisonment is expected, the case will be heard in the local court before three judges, consisting of one professional judge and two non‑professional judges (Schöffen). If a sentence of more than four years’ imprisonment is expected, the case will be heard in the regional court, before two or three professional judges and two non‑professional judges. Matters of national security are heard by the higher regional court, consisting of three professional judges.
Will the trial be public?
The trial is public. The public will be excluded only in exceptional circumstances, e.g. in order to protect witnesses.
Can the charges be changed during the trial?
Minor changes can be made to the charges on the instructions of the court. Supplementary charges may be brought during the trial. But supplementary charges will be considered only if you and the court agree.
What happens if I plead guilty to some or all of the charges in the course of the trial?
An admission will not end the proceedings. However, the court may decide not to hear some of the evidence if it regards your admission as reliable, for example because it is corroborated by evidence already heard. If you admit any of the charges the court may reduce the sentence. In some cases your admission may form part of a plea bargain. A plea bargain relates to the sentence, and not to the verdict of guilty or not guilty.
What are my rights during the trial?
You are required to attend the trial. If you have not been excused from attending and nevertheless fail to appear, the trial will be stayed, and a warrant may be issued for your arrest. Proceedings for a summary order are an exception to this rule.
If you cannot speak the language well enough, the court will provide an interpreter to translate all important steps taken and statements made during the trial.
You can appoint a lawyer to defend you. In some cases you must have a defence lawyer. If you do not choose a lawyer, the court will designate a court-appointed defence lawyer.
Can I challenge the evidence presented against me?
When evidence is brought against you, you can express your opinion of it. You can dispute any evidence which you believe has been improperly brought against you.
You can also apply for further evidence to be brought. You can gather your own evidence, but you will not enjoy the same powers as the police. For example, you cannot intercept telephone calls and produce the recordings n evidence.
You may ask witnesses to appear and say what they know, and you may bring them to the court. Bear in mind, however, that witnesses are under an obligation to tell the court the truth.
Witnesses are questioned first by the judge or judges and then by the public prosecutor. You and your lawyer may question them after that.
As a rule, an extract from the register showing your criminal record, clean or otherwise, will be read out. If you have already been convicted of a crime similar to the one at issue in the present proceedings, the previous judgment may also be read out. The criminal register does not show previous convictions in other Member States. However, if the court learns of previous convictions in some other way it may take them into account.
What happens at the end of the trial?
The trial ends with a judgment, or the proceedings may be discontinued.
In the majority of cases trials end with a judgment. The court may find you guilty or acquit you, depending on the evidence. The judgment may impose a fine or a term of imprisonment. In particular circumstances provided for by law, the court may order a measure such as placement in a psychiatric hospital or a drug rehabilitation centre, or preventive detention. Withdrawal of your driving licence is another possible measure of this kind. A driving ban may be imposed as a supplementary penalty.
A fine is measured in terms of a certain number of daily quotas (Tagessätze, e.g. 50 daily quotas of €15). The daily quota is always one-thirtieth of your monthly income. You can also work to discharge a fine. If you do not pay the fine, and do not work off the fine, you will be imprisoned for one day per daily quota. If the fine is no more than 180 daily quotas, it may be suspended. That means you will be given a warning, and will have to pay the fine only if you offend again after sentencing, or otherwise breach any orders made by the court.
Prison sentences of up to two years can also be suspended. If you fail to meet the probation conditions, the sentence can be enforced.
Other measures and additional penalties can be attached to the sentence.
What is the role of the victim during the trial?
In the majority of cases the victim is an important witness, and will be heard in that capacity.
Victims of certain crimes may also take an active part in the trial if they are entitled to join their own civil action to the public criminal action. Victims may then themselves ask questions or apply for evidence to be considered, and may be represented by a lawyer who will do this on their behalf. At the end of the trial the victim or the victim’s lawyer may make closing submissions recommending a particular sentence.
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