As a Colorado criminal case moves through the pretrial process, it is typical to conduct a disposition hearing. This is where you decide whether to accept the prosecutor’s plea bargain offer or proceed to trial. Accepting the offer and pleading guilty or no contest would result in the resolution of the criminal charges without going through a trial.
Not all criminal cases go through a disposition hearing. If you do not want a plea bargain or need more time to decide how to proceed, the disposition hearing may be
- “continued” or
Generally, you must decide at a disposition hearing whether to:
- take a plea deal;
- continue the hearing to a later date; or
- proceed to trial.
In some cases, a person may refer to a “disposition hearing” as a general court hearing before the judge. It is important to clarify what type of court hearing is scheduled to understand how to prepare and make sure you have your lawyer present to avoid any costly surprises.
- 1. What is a disposition hearing in Colorado criminal court?
- 2. Do I need a disposition hearing in my Colorado criminal court case?
- 3. Do I need to have a lawyer for the disposition hearing?
- 4. What happens after the disposition hearing in the Colorado criminal court process?
1. What is a disposition hearing in Colorado criminal court?
A disposition hearing is where the court determines whether the case can be “disposed of” before going to a trial. You accepting the prosecutor’s plea offer will dispose of the case, and you will be sentenced.
If you do not want to accept the plea bargain at the disposition hearing,
- the case will be put on for trial or
- you can ask for more time to negotiate or consider the plea agreement.
After you talk to your attorney, you can:
- accept the plea agreement,
- ask to continue the hearing to a later date, or
- take the case to trial.
1.1. What is a preliminary hearing?
A preliminary hearing is a procedure where you can challenge the state’s case against you. The prosecutor has to provide evidence to establish probable cause to the judge.
- If the judge finds probable cause exists, you will be arraigned on the charges.
- If the judge does not find probable cause, the case may be dismissed.
A preliminary hearing is generally only available if you are charged with a:
- class 1 felony, class 2 felony, or class 3 felony,
- class 4, 5, or 6 felony with mandatory jail time, or
- class 4, 5, or 6 felony and in police custody.
If you are not eligible for a preliminary hearing, waive the hearing, or do not request a preliminary hearing, the case will proceed to the disposition hearing.
2. Do I need a disposition hearing in my Colorado criminal court case?
A disposition hearing is where you decide whether to
- accept a plea bargain or
- take the case to court.
If you have already decided not to take the deal, the disposition hearing may be a short hearing where the case will be scheduled for trial.
2.1. Plea bargain disposition hearing
Most criminal cases in Colorado never go to trial. Instead, the majority of cases are plea bargained, where the prosecutor offers to recommend certain terms in exchange for you pleading guilty.
Make sure you talk to your lawyer before ever accepting a plea deal. The prosecutor may make it seem like you don’t have a choice, or it is a “one-time offer,” but these deals can usually be negotiated.
2.1.1. Telling the judge
If the plea bargain is the best option, the prosecutor presents the agreement to the judge with a recommendation. If the judge accepts the deal,
- it will be read into the court record and
- you will be sentenced based on the settlement agreement.
If the judge does not accept the recommendation, you and the prosecutor may go back to negotiations.
After the plea bargain has been made and accepted, it is the end of your chance to challenge the criminal charges. You must follow the terms of the sentencing, including any probationary conditions or terms of parole upon release.
2.2. Ask for a continuance
A continuance is basically asking for more time. In most cases, a continuance will be granted to avoid violating your rights. However, you may need to show cause why a continuance is necessary, especially where you have asked for multiple extensions.
Grounds for a continuance may include:
- ongoing plea deal negotiations,
- public defender‘s failure to appear in court,
- public defender’s replacement with a criminal defense attorney,
- scheduling conflict with the court, prosecutor, or you or your defense attorney, or
- illness or emergency.
Often, a hearing may be continued because the court ran out of time. The court will have multiple hearings on any given date. When these
- hearings, and
- other proceedings
run long, the remaining parties scheduled may be told to go home and come back on another date.
This can be frustrating when you have taken time off of work or arranged for childcare, only to be told to come back again.
2.3. Take your case to trial
If you do not want to accept the prosecutor’s offer, the judge will bind the case over for trial. It may seem intimidating to face a criminal courtroom jury trial where the jury determines guilt or innocence.
However, there may be a number of steps before you step foot in front of a jury. In most cases, your case will never get to trial.
The prosecutor and you can continue negotiating possible plea agreement deals, all to the trial stage. Your attorney may recommend taking a plea. However, it is important to know that the ultimate decision of whether to take the offer or not is up to you alone.
3. Do I need to have a lawyer for the disposition hearing?
You should have an attorney before you appear for the disposition hearing. An experienced Colorado criminal defense lawyer will best be able to explain all your options and the benefits and consequences of going to trial versus taking a plea.
If you need more time to get a lawyer, you can generally ask for more time at the disposition hearing. Contacting a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after an arrest will give your lawyer the chance to
- review your case,
- investigate the charges, and
- help you decide how best to fight for your rights.
3.1. Can I have a public defender for the disposition hearing?
If you do not have an attorney and cannot afford an attorney, the court may appoint a public defender. To get a public defender in Colorado, you have to meet certain income and asset limits.
If you have a public defender, your public defender will generally talk to the district attorney to come up with a plea deal. Your public defender will likely try and get you to accept a plea bargain.
This is partly because public defenders often have a heavy workload and limited resources. A plea bargain is the fastest way for the public defender to dispose of your case.
4. What happens after the disposition hearing in the Colorado criminal court process?
What happens after the disposition hearing depends on what you decided, whether to:
- take a plea agreement;
- continue the hearing to a future date; or
- take the case to trial.
4.1. After plea bargain
After you accept a plea agreement, the deal is presented to the judge with the prosecutor’s recommendation. The judge generally goes along with the prosecutor’s recommendation. However, the judge does not have to accept the plea agreement.
If the judge accepts the plea agreement, it will be read into the record before you. Depending on the plea agreement and the criminal charges, you may be sentenced to prison or released, based on the terms of the agreement.
4.1.1. Withdrawal of plea and violations
Generally, there is not much opportunity for you to change your mind after accepting the plea deal. You have the burden of establishing a “fair and just reason” for withdrawing a plea prior to the imposition of a sentence.2
To warrant discretion favorable to you if you wish to change your plea, there must be some showing that justice will be subverted by denying a change of plea.3
Additionally, if you violate the terms of probation or alternative sentencing, you may be sentenced to prison, based on the terms of the plea deal.
4.2. After continuance
A continuance is a delay to put the hearing on for a future date. Generally, a continuance allows your lawyer more time to negotiate a better plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor.
After a continuance is granted, the court may schedule another disposition hearing or other court date to determine if the case will be
- settled through a plea agreement or
- taken to trial.
4.3. Going to trial
If you do not want to plead guilty or do not want to accept the plea bargain, the case may be scheduled for trial. However, there may be a number of steps before the case ever gets to trial. This may include:
- Pretrial hearings,
- Pretrial motions,
- Continuing plea bargain negotiations,
- Bench trial or jury trial4, and
- Jury selection5.
Most Colorado criminal court cases never make it to trial. The majority of criminal cases are settled through a plea deal.6
Even if a case goes to pretrial hearings, the defense attorney may win some important pretrial motions to suppress evidence. If the judge grants a motion to suppress, the prosecutor may not have enough evidence to present to the jury. This may result in
- the prosecutor dropping charges or
- the judge dismissing the case.
Talk to your Colorado criminal defense attorney about the strength of your case and whether you may want to take a plea deal or take your case to trial.
- C.R.C.P. 5(a)(4).
- People v. Gutierrez, 622 P.2d 547 (Colo.1981).
- People v. Chavez, 730 P.2d 321 (Colo.1986) (“To warrant the exercise of discretion favorable to a defendant concerning a change of plea, there must be some showing that justice will be subverted by a denial thereof, as where a defendant may have been surprised or influenced into a plea of guilty when he had a defense; where a plea of guilty was entered by mistake or under a misconception of the nature of the charge; where such plea was entered through fear, fraud, or official misrepresentation; or where it was made involuntarily for some reason.”).
- C.R.S. 18-1-406(1).
- C.R.S. 16-10-103 and C.R.S. 16-10-104.
- Colorado Judicial Branch Annual Statistical Report Fiscal Year 2014.