Judge explains inner workings of legal system

For eight weeks, The Mining Journal will participate in the Citizens Academy and chronicle the insights into the Michigan State Police.


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — Some of the complex intricacies of the United States’ legal system were explained during this week’s Citizens Academy, a multiweek informational program hosted by the Michigan State Police Negaunee Post.

Judge Charlie Nebel, who oversees the 5th District Probate and Family Court for Alger and Schoolcraft counties, on Wednesday shared some of his experiences from the bench, as well as from the years he spent as a defense lawyer.

“If you believe in the system — and deep down we all have to because it’s ours, and it’s flawed and it’s horrible and it’s nevertheless better than any other system in the world … — (but) if you believe in the system, then you do what you do and you get through it and you defend people that you know are responsible, and you find a way to advocate for them, to limit their consequences, to limit their time in jail,” he said.

The three distinct courts Nebel touched on were circuit, district and probate court.

“Probate court historically handles things with people that can’t help themselves: the aged; the young; the mentally infirm,” he said. “So if you are in need of a guardianship because you can’t make important decisions about your own care on a day-to-day basis, that’s a probate court thing.”

District court, he said, is where most other types of cases start.

“That’s something that’s kind of the entry level court,” Nebel explained, adding that district court judges typically oversee misdemeanors, civil infractions and civil matters when the amount in controversy is less than $25,000.

“District court matters can be appealed to circuit court,” he said. “That’s the next level, and that’s where felonies are handled … When a charge is brought, … the alleged offender, at that stage, starts in the district court. If it’s a criminal case that is punishable by a year or less, it stays in district court. If it’s a felony, then it has to get transitioned from district court to circuit court.”

For a case to be bound over to circuit court, a preliminary examination must first take place in district court.

“That preliminary examination has to show a very minimal burden, a mere probable cause that a crime was committed and probable cause to believe that the person charged committed it,” he said. “That level of proof is obviously significantly less than the ultimate conviction burden, which is proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Most times, Nebel said, if a case goes to trial, the accused will choose trial by jury, which is made up of members from the public who are carefully vetted by prosecutors and defense attorneys for preconceived notions or past experiences that could affect their judgement during the trial.

“There are things that are limited in what can be told to a jury, that’s admissible, and that’s one of the roles that a judge has,” Nebel said. “The judge has very little to do with determining whether or not a person is guilty or innocent in a jury trial. Sometimes there are defendants and attorneys that choose to go with a judge trial, but it’s very rare.”

“Whether you’re guilty or innocent is up to a jury, your sentence is up to a court,” Nebel later added.

If a person is convicted of a felony crime, judges use sentencing guidelines established by the state Legislature to help determine how much time that person may spend in jail. Prior convictions and offense variables both make up the sentencing guideline grid, Nebel said.

“If you have misdemeanor convictions, if you have concurrent felony convictions, if you are on probation, if there is a crime spree and you’ve committed multiple offenses … , those are all scorable,” he said. “You don’t want to score points on this grid.”

Nebel also described the different levels and various consequences of assault and murder, as well as what might constitute a “premeditated” act.

“If you and I are fighting and I jump on top of you and start choking you to death, … and at some point I have the ability to deliberate, ‘Boy, I’m choking her, I wonder if I’m going to kill her’ — when that runs through my mind, that can be the level of premeditation. So it can go like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But you have to have the ability to reflect.”

Something that’s changed, Nebel said, related to sentencing, is the court’s consideration of how the crime has impacted the victims or their family members.

“When there are homicide situations, obviously the true victim is going to be gone, but they would look to the family, and it’s powerful,” he said. “Those moments when the victims talk in, particularly, homicide-type files — the victims’ families — or (criminal sexual conduct)-type files are very, very powerful moments in a courtroom.”

Nebel said due to double jeopardy, individuals are only eligible to be tried once for a specific crime.

“That’s when they say jeopardy attaches, and you can’t be tried twice because of double jeopardy,” he said. “So, jeopardy attaches at the time that the first witness is called in a trial. The one exception is … what’s called a mistrial. If a judge determines there’s a mistrial, then the jeopardy that’s attached is no longer attached and you can be tried again.”

Ryan Jarvi can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. His email address is rjarvi@miningjournal.net.