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Below is an overview of the criminal court process in Minnesota. Read through our Definitions tab for more information on specific terms used in criminal cases, and the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) tab for answers to common questions related to criminal law.

A criminal case is started with a citation (ticket) issued by an officer, or a complaint issued by the prosecuting authority and signed by a judge.  There are different levels of offenses, and certain low level offenses are not considered crimes (for example, certain parking or traffic tickets).  The criminal court process can be complicated.  Consequences may include fines, jail time, probation, or other conditions.

Arraignment

The first hearing in some criminal court cases or the second hearing in a gross misdemeanor or felony case. 

Bail

Money you or someone else on your behalf must leave with the court as a guarantee that you will go to all future court hearings. Once the case is closed, your bail is either returned to you, applied to any fines you may owe, or forfeited for failure to attend a hearing.

Bond

A guarantee offered by a bonding company that takes steps to make sure you go to all future court hearings. You, or someone on your behalf, pays the bonding company a fee. Sometimes the bonding company also requires collateral (for example, property) as another guarantee that you will go to court. Unlike bail, the cost of a bond is not refunded or applied to any court fines. If you ever fail to appear in court as directed, the bondsman must pay the entire bail amount to the court, but can collect on any collateral that you put up in exchange for the bond.

Complaint

A written statement of the charges against a defendant.

Continuance for Dismissal

An agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor that the case will be dismissed after a certain period of time if the defendant follows the terms of the agreement.

Conviction

A finding by a jury or a judge that someone is guilty of a criminal offense, which is accepted and recorded by a judge.

Crime

An act not allowed by law.

Criminal Expungement

The process of going to court to ask a judge to seal records from a criminal court case so that they cannot be seen by the general public.

Criminal Record

A record of a person’s criminal history, which includes arrests, convictions, and dismissals. Your Minnesota criminal court record is a combination of all of the files and records of any felony, gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, or petty misdemeanor you have ever been arrested for or charged with in Minnesota, as well as the sentences served for those charges.  

Court Trial

A lawful proceeding where a judge makes the decision or findings of fact instead of a jury. Court trials are also sometimes called bench trials.

Domestic Abuse No Contact Order (DANCO)

A court order issued in a criminal case that prohibits someone from having contact with a family or household member who is an alleged victim of the offense. This could include a spouse or significant other, children, roommate, or parents.

An Order for Protection or Harassment Restraining Order are other types of protective orders that are issued in non-criminal cases. You can find more information about those types of orders by visiting the Domestic Abuse & Harassment Help Topic.

Defendant

In a criminal case, a person accused of/charged with committing a crime.

Dismissal

The closing of a criminal case with no finding of guilt or conviction for the defendant.

Diversion Program

A program that refers certain defendants (for example, those with no prior criminal history, diversion, or felonies, for a non-violent criminal offense) before trial to community programs such as job training or education. If the programs are successfully completed, the criminal case may be dismissed.

Felony

A serious crime that can be punished by imprisonment for a period of more than one year.

Gross Misdemeanor

A crime that can be punished by imprisonment for a period between 91 and 365 days and/or a fine of up to $3,000.

Juror

A member of the public who acts as part of a group that hears evidence in a trial and decides whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty in a criminal case.

Jury Trial

A jury trial is a lawful proceeding in which a group of citizens called a jury decides whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty in a criminal case.

Law Enforcement Agency

An agency at the state, county, or local level that enforces laws, makes arrests, and investigates crimes.

Misdemeanor

A crime in Minnesota that can be punished by imprisonment of up to 90 days and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Omnibus Hearing

A pre-trial hearing in felony and gross misdemeanor cases that deals with legal issues such as probable cause and evidentiary questions. See Minn. R. Crim. Pro. 11 for more information.

Petty Misdemeanor

The lowest level of offense in Minnesota, an act punished by a fine not more than $300 that is not considered a crime under Minnesota law.

Plea

An accused defendant’s formal response to criminal charges, usually entered at an arraignment.

Plea Bargain or Plea Deal

An agreement between the defendant and the prosecuting authority for the defendant to plead guilty to some or all of the charges against them. This is usually in exchange for reducing the defendant’s punishment by dropping or lowering the severity of the charges and/or dismissing other charges.

Probable Cause

A strong belief based on facts that a crime has been committed, that a particular person has committed the crime, and that evidence related to the crime exists.

Probation

A sentence that releases a convicted criminal defendant into the community instead of sending them to jail or prison, provided they follow the conditions and restrictions put in place by the court. Probation is often monitored by a probation officer.

Probation Officer

Someone who works with and monitors criminal offenders to make sure they follow the conditions and restrictions put in place by the court during probation. They supervise offenders and investigate the offender's history (personal and criminal) before sentencing.

Prosecutor

A lawyer who manages a case against a defendant in criminal court by bringing charges, presenting evidence, and making arguments on behalf of the state.

Public Defender

An attorney appointed by the state to represent someone charged with a crime when the courts determine that person cannot afford to hire a private attorney.

Stay of Adjudication

A type of sentence following a guilty plea when the court delays entering a conviction as long as the defendant follows certain conditions (for example, probation, community service, fines, treatment, restitution, etc.). If the defendant successfully completes these conditions, the criminal case is dismissed.

Stay of Imposition

A type of sentence following a guilty plea when the court delays entering the sentence that could be imposed as long as the defendant follows certain conditions (for example, probation, community service, fines, treatment, restitution, etc.). If the defendant successfully completes these conditions, the conviction is considered a misdemeanor. If the defendant does not successfully complete the conditions, the court may impose the original sentence.

Subpoena

A court document requiring a witness to testify, provide specific evidence, or both.

Warrant

A document issued by a judge authorizing the police or some other body to make an arrest, search a location, or carry out some other action related to investigating a crime.

Is a traffic ticket considered a crime?

That depends on whether you were charged with an offense at the level of a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor, or felony. A basic speeding ticket is a petty misdemeanor and not considered a crime under Minnesota law.

I paid a traffic ticket and now the case says I pled guilty. How can I reopen the case?

As explained on the back of the ticket, paying a fine is a plea of guilty. If you want to request that the court reopen a traffic case, you can ask the judge to allow you to withdraw your guilty plea and vacate the conviction. This request can be made by calling court administration to schedule a hearing and filing a Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea and Vacate Conviction with the court. A copy of your motion must also be served on the prosecuting authority for the case. At the hearing, you can explain to the judge why you think you should be allowed to withdraw your guilty plea and have the case reopened.

How do I get a copy of my driving record?

Driving records are separate from court records and are kept by the MN Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS). Please contact DVS for more information.

What criminal court information is public?

Except for certain documents filed in the case, all information in a criminal court case is available to the public including:
 
  • the name of the defendant
  • the type of crime charged,
  • the name of the court that convicted or dismissed the charges,
  • the date of conviction or dismissal,
  • a description of the sentence served, if any, and
  • other details of the crime and court process.
The Minnesota Rules of Public Access to Records of the Judicial Branch are established by the Minnesota Supreme Court and govern public access to all types of records of the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

If my case was dismissed, do I have a criminal court record?

Most likely, yes. Even if a case is dismissed, you generally would have a public criminal court record showing that you were charged with a crime and that your charge was later dismissed.

I was arrested, but how do I know if I have been charged?

When there is enough evidence to charge a crime, the prosecutor will issue a criminal complaint. If you were not served with a complaint while you were in custody, then the complaint is typically mailed to you at the address you gave the arresting officer or the court. If you are still not sure whether you have been charged, you could search court records at the courthouse, or you could contact the prosecutor’s office that handles cases in the city and county where you were arrested.

How do I know if there is a warrant for my arrest?

You can contact the Sheriff's Office in the county where you believe the warrant may have been issued. There are several reasons why an arrest warrant may be issued. Some of the most common ones are:
 
  • failure to appear at a court hearing;
  • violation of the terms of a sentence; or
  • the warrant was filed with the court as part of a criminal complaint.

I have a warrant. What should I do?

The Sheriff's Office in the county where you were charged may be able to help you clear up your warrant. Another option is to call or go to the court in the county where you were charged and ask how you can deal with the warrant.  NOTE: You may be taken into custody if there is a warrant for your arrest and you appear in person.

If you are not sure how you should handle your warrant, get legal advice from a lawyer.

How do I post (pay) bail or bond?

Bail and/or bonds may be posted (paid) at the jail or any criminal court location where the case will be heard. The jail will only accept authorized bonds from state-approved bond agents. Bail may be paid with cash only.

How can I get my bail money back?

Only the judge can order bail refunds. If the judge ordered that all or part of your bail should be refunded, you can contact the court to request a refund. Bail refunds are only issued by check and will be mailed to you in most cases, rather than given out in person. The bail refund check will be issued only to the named defendant, and you must bring photo ID to request your refund.

If the judge did not order a refund of the bail, you could call the Criminal Division in the county where your case is located to get more information about the case.

Can I get a public defender?

Public defenders are only appointed in cases involving the possibility of jail time (misdemeanor and higher level offenses), and where the defendant has a low income. If you do not qualify for a public defender but would like an attorney to represent you, you can visit the Find a Lawyer Help Topic to find resources for hiring an attorney or other free or low-cost legal representation.

How do I apply for a public defender?

If you have been charged with a crime that involves the possibility of jail time, you can apply for a public defender when you make your first court appearance. You must fill out an application form to help the court determine if you qualify for the public defender service.

What happens at the first court hearing in a criminal case?

The court may ask the defendant to fill out a Statement of Rights form. The judge usually talks about constitutional rights and reviews the charges. The judge may ask the defendant if they want to enter a plea of guilty. If the defendant decides to plead not guilty or if no plea is entered, the case is then scheduled for another hearing (for example, a pre-trial or omnibus hearing, or a court trial in a petty misdemeanor case).

How can I reschedule a court date or get a continuance?

Talk to your lawyer if you have one. If you don't have a lawyer, you could call the court in the county where your case is filed to find out if it is possible to change the hearing date.

What should I do if I can’t make it to my court hearing?

Not showing up for a hearing can cause problems for defendants and could result in the court issuing a warrant for your arrest. You may not be able to reschedule your hearing date. If you cannot make it to your hearing, contact your attorney right away if you have one. If you don't have an attorney, you should call the court in the county where your case is filed. If the court does not agree to continue your hearing, you will be expected to appear. It is important to remember that a warrant will likely be issued if you fail to appear.

How can I ask for a Domestic Abuse No Contact Order (DANCO) to be dismissed?

Only the judge on a case can dismiss a DANCO. If you are considered the victim of an alleged crime and are protected by a DANCO, you cannot directly ask the judge to dismiss the DANCO. You can contact the prosecutor’s office to see whether they are willing to ask the judge for the dismissal. 
 
If you are the defendant and want to ask the judge to dismiss a DANCO, talk with your attorney if you have one. If you do not have an attorney, you are encouraged to get legal advice about making this request. Visit the Find a Lawyer Help Topic for legal advice resources.

I was the victim of a crime. How do I apply for restitution?

If you were the victim of a crime, you can find detailed information about applying for restitution in the Crime Victim’s Restitution Packet.

I have been convicted of a crime. How will my rights be affected?

Criminal convictions can impact certain constitutional rights. For example, the rights to vote or hold public office may be suspended by a criminal conviction until you have been discharged from the sentence.

After a conviction for a felony crime of violence, your rights to possess firearms and ammunition are permanently taken away. You can find more information about how to ask the court to restore your rights to possess a firearm and ammunition by visiting the Firearms Help Topic.

How can I find out if I have a criminal case history?

You can visit a courthouse in person and search court records on a public records computer. Court records may also be searched on the Minnesota Judicial Branch website, but there are limits to what information is available online. The most complete information is available by going the courthouse.

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some courthouses may limit the types of in-person services they provide. Visit the Local Court Procedures & Contact page for more information about accessing records at your local courthouse.

What can I do if I think there is a mistake on my criminal record?

You can contact the court in the county where the case was filed. Depending upon the type of mistake, court administration may be able to help you. If you believe someone falsely used your identity to commit a crime, you can review the Department of Public Safety’s Criminal Identity Theft Roadmap and work with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to file a Questioned Identity Initial Report Form.

How do I get a copy of a criminal court record from a Minnesota court?

Contact the court in the county where the criminal case is filed to get copies of a court record.

I was told that the case would be removed from my record after a certain period of time. Why does it still appear?

The Minnesota Judicial Branch has a Record Retention Schedule that sets minimum time periods for keeping court records. If there is a criminal case on your court record that you would like removed, you can ask a judge to seal your record. This is called requesting criminal expungement. Visit the court’s Criminal Expungement Help Topic for more information.
You should talk to a lawyer and get advice on how laws and rules may affect your situation. The information here is NOT a substitute for legal advice. You may want to read What Court Staff Can and Cannot Do for You for more information.
 

Statutes & Court Rules

The following is a list of some of the laws and rules that relate to criminal cases in District Court. See also Laws, Rules & Legal Research and the Criminal Law Guide (MN State Law Library).
 

Minnesota Statutes:

Minnesota Court Rules:

Minnesota General Rules of Practice:

You can help get with legal research at the MN State Law Library and other law libraries throughout Minnesota. County law libraries are open to the public, and hours will vary.