What Happened in Your Case

If you miss a court date, and sometimes even if you were in court, you may be unsure exactly what happened in court. If you have a lawyer, the lawyer should be able to answer your questions.  What follows is a general overview of how cases are brought and work their way through the court system. 

The Filing of a Complaint.  Every case, civil or criminal, begins with a formal filing of a Complaint or Petition.  When a police officer issues you a traffic ticket, you will also receive information and instructions regarding your options as to how to deal with the ticket.  Read the instructions carefully.  Usually there are three options.

  1. Plead Guilty and Pay a Preset Fine.  If you sign the guilty plea and send in the fine by a certain date you avoid having to go to court, but you have a conviction.  In Illinois, if you are under 21, your driving privileges will be suspended if you receive 2 convictions within any 24 month time period.
  2. Plead Guilty and Request Court Supervision.  The fine is always higher and you are usually required to attend driving school.  If you are 21 or older you will be suspended after 3 convictions.  Out of state tickets count.  If you violate a court supervision order by failing to pay the fine on time or missing driving school, a conviction will be entered against you.
  3. Plead Not Guilty and Request a Trial.

The First Court Date.  The name given for the first court date differs depending on the nature of the case.  The first court date is usually called a “Return” date.  In civil cases, the Return date is usually set at least 30 days after the case is filed. During this time period, the Defendant is given the opportunity to file a formal written “Answer” to the Complaint.  The Answer admits or denies each of the various allegations contained in the Complaint.  Depending on the case, the Defendant may elect to file a “Counterclaim” in addition to an answer.  A Counterclaim states various claims the Defendant has against the Plaintiff which arise out of the same transaction that is the basis of the original Complaint.  In Small Claims cases (suits for money of $5000 or less in Illinois), a formal Answer is not required.

If you are sued civilly, you should consult an attorney to discuss the case and the options available to you.  You or your attorney need to appear in court on the first court date or else you risk having a “Default Judgment” entered against you. A Default Judgment is a judgment entered granting the Plaintiff’s claim because the Defendant failed to appear or otherwise contest the Plaintiff’s claim.  If a Default Judgment was entered in your case, you should contact an attorney immediately.

In a criminal or traffic case, a Defendant does not have to file a written Answer, but must appear in court on the first court date. This court date is often called a “Plea date.”  Failure to appear can result in an arrest warrant being issued against you or the entrance of a judgment finding you guilty of the charge.  The first court date in felony cases is called the Arraignment. In both instances, the first court date is a preliminary date, not the trial.  No evidence is taken, no witnesses are present, and the arresting police officer(s) are typically not present.  Rather, the judge reads the charge(s) to the Defendant, informs the Defendant about his or her rights, asks the Defendant how he or she pleads, and determines whether the Defendant is eligible for a court appointed attorney.  After this, the case is normally “continued” to a later date, which is specified in a separate order. This order is called an Order of Continuance.  There may be several “Continuances” in your case.  You need to be present on each subsequent court date unless your attorney tells you otherwise.

While your case is ongoing your court date can be set for various reasons.  Most commonly, a case may be set for a Status Review.  The purpose of a Status Review is to check on the progress or “status” of the case, but can additionally serve as a deadline for production of documents, setting a date for a deposition, setting a trial date, etc.  The case can also be set for a Hearing other than the trial itself.  A hearing can be evidentiary, i.e., involving the presentation of witnesses and other evidence, or it can relate to a Motion, which is a request by one or both parties for the entry of an order relating to a particular aspect of the case. Examples of Motions include a Motion to Suppress Evidence, a Motion to Strike Pleadings, a Motion to Compel the Production of Documents, etc.  You should consult your lawyer about whether you need to be present for the Status Review or Hearing. Generally, Defendants in criminal cases are required to be present for all court dates, whereas parties in civil cases do not need to be present.  Again, consult your lawyer.

Ultimately, cases are resolved through the entry of a final Order, or Judgment. Your lawyer will explain the meaning of the Order being proposed, but, in general, Orders include the following:

Dismissal.  A Dismissal is an Order stating that the case against the Defendant is being “dismissed,” that is, that the Plaintiff is no longer pursuing the case.  Dismissals can be “with prejudice,” meaning the Plaintiff has surrendered or lost the right to try to reinstate the case, or “without prejudice,” meaning the Plaintiff retains the right to reinstate the case at a later time.  This might occur if, for example, the Defendant violates some agreement entered into between the parties, fails to pay money as promised, etc.

Continuance.  As stated above, an Order continuing a case puts the case over to another date for a specific purpose, such as a hearing or trial, or for the general purpose of informing the judge what is going on in the case.

Judgment.  As stated, a Judgment is a final Order in a case.  In civil cases, Judgments typically reflect the decision of the trier of fact (judge or jury) that the Defendant does or does not owe the Plaintiff money.  Thus, in a small claims case, where a tenant is suing a landlord for return of a security deposit and the judge determines that the tenant is entitled to some or all of the withheld deposit, a Judgment would be entered in favor of the Plaintiff (tenant) and against the Defendant (landlord) for a specific amount of money, plus court costs.  If the judge ruled that no monies were due the tenant, Judgment would be entered denying the Plaintiff’s claim.

Some Judgments contain rulings on matters other than money.  In an eviction case, a Judgment for Possession states that a landlord is entitled to recover possession of premises the landlord leased to a tenant. A Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage dissolves the marriage entered into by the parties. Restraining Orders prohibit a person from performing a specific act (selling property, or using property in a way the court forbids).  An Order of Protection, issued pursuant to provisions of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act, forbids the person against whom the Order is entered from various acts (harassing, having contact with or being present at a given location where the victim may be, such as a workplace, apartment, church, etc).

Court Supervision.  An Order of Court Supervision is a form of an Order of Continuance in which a criminal defendant pleads guilty to a charge and, in return, is ordered to perform certain acts (paying a fine, performing community service work, making restitution, etc) and refrain from other acts (violating other criminal laws, entering into a given establishment) during a specified period. The Court Supervision Order contains language that if the Defendant acts in compliance with the terms of the Order for the period indicated, the Court will thereafter dismiss the case.  The advantage of Court Supervision is that it offers the possibility that a person charged with a criminal offense can avoid a Conviction, which results in the Defendant having a criminal record.  (Under a new Illinois law, convictions in some less serious criminal cases can be expunged.  See Expungements.)

Be aware that not all states (Wisconsin and Indiana, for example) have sentencing options that include Court Supervision.

Conviction. A Conviction is an Order determining that the Defendant is guilty of a given charge and it specifies a given set of punishments.  If one of the punishments is incarceration, a separate Order of Incarceration is typically entered, laying out the terms of the incarceration.

Conditional Discharge.  An Order of Conditional Discharge is similar to an Order of Conviction; but often contains terms and conditions which allow a Defendant to avoid imprisonment or probation if the terms and conditions are met. In an Order of Conditional Discharge, a conviction is entered, even if the Defendant successfully complies with all the terms and conditions of the Order. If the Defendant violates the Conditional Discharge Order, the State can seek to revoke the Order and request the Court to re-sentence the Defendant, often to a period of incarceration.

Order of Probation. In an Order of Probation, a Defendant is ordered to establish contact with a Department of Probation, which monitors the Defendant’s compliance with the Court Order.  Violation of the Order of Probation is grounds for the State to seek to revoke the Order of Probation and have the Defendant re-sentenced.