1. A crime is reported to the police in the city or town where it occurred.

2. An arrest is sometimes, but not always, made immediately after the crime is reported. The decision to make an arrest after a domestic violence incident is not made by the victim. If the police department determines that probable cause exists for a domestic violence crime, an arrest must be made as required by law, whether or not the victim wishes to “press charges.” Rhode Island has a mandatory arrest law (Rhode Island General Laws 12-29-3), which was enacted in 1988. The law requires the police who were called to the crime scene to arrest the primary aggressor if there is probable cause to believe that a domestic violence crime has been committed. "Primary aggressor" does not necessarily mean the person who struck first. This term is defined as the most significant aggressor in consideration of the extent of injuries inflicted or serious threats creating fear of physical injury. "Probable cause" means the combination of facts that leads a police officer to believe that a crime has probably occurred. The mandatory arrest policy is intended to take the responsibility of having the perpetrator arrested away from the victim. Under the law, if it is determined that probable cause exists, then it is mandatory for the police to make an arrest.


3. After an arrest, an arraignment is held, either by a District Court judge or a bail commissioner depending on the time/day of the arrest. At the arraignment, the judge or bail commissioner formally charges the offender with the crime. If it is a domestic violence crime, the judge or commissioner must issue a no contact order at the time of arraignment. (For information on no contact orders, see Legal Terms.) Every crime is classified as either a "felony,” “misdemeanor,” or “petty misdemeanor,” which affects the path that the case will take. Felonies are crimes punishable by more than one year in jail and are handled by the Superior Court. (Some felonies are further designated as “capital offenses,” crimes punishable by up to life in prison and are also handled by the Superior Court.) Misdemeanors are crimes punishable by up to one year in jail and are handled by the District Court. Petty misdemeanors are crimes punishable by up to six months in jail and are handled by the District Court.

4. If the crime is a capital offense, or if the offender is alleged to be a probation violator, then a bail/violation hearing will be held within 10 days of the arrest. This hearing is an open courtroom proceeding where the offender and a defense attorney are present. The hearing is conducted by a judge (Superior or District) without a jury.

Next Steps for Misdemeanors & Petty Misdemeanors

5. The next step for all domestic violence misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors is a pretrial and/or trial in District Court. All domestic violence misdemeanor crimes (those with a maximum sentence of one year or less) and petty misdemeanor crimes (those with a maximum sentence of six months or less) are initially heard in District Court.

Referral to Superior Court (Felonies & Capital cases)

6. All felonies and capital cases are referred to the Office of the Attorney General after arraignment.

7. Capital cases must follow the grand jury process. The grand jury hearing is a secret proceeding where the prosecutor brings witnesses to testify before the jury members. Only the prosecutor, the jury, the court stenographer, and the witness are in the room. Neither the offender or defense attorney is present. The grand jury does not decide guilt or innocence, but whether there is probable cause that a law has been broken and the accused may have committed the crime. If they find probable cause, they issue an indictment. If they do not, the case goes no further.

8. Generally, felonies follow the screening procedure. A designated Assistant Attorney General reviews the police package and screens it to determine which charges are appropriate. The Assistant Attorney General does not decide guilt or innocence, but whether there is probable cause that a law has been broken and the accused may have committed the crime. If they find probable cause, they issue an “information.” If they do not, the case goes no further.

9. If the grand jury issues an indictment or the Attorney General's office issues an information, the case goes to Superior Court, where the offender is arraigned and bail is set (even if this happened previously in District Court). At the time of arraignment, the offender is provided with a pretrial and trial date.


10. Between arraignment and trial, the prosecutor and the defense attorney may try to reach a settlement of the case, or a plea bargain, at pretrial conferences.

11. A defendant in a District Court case may appeal their trial to Superior Court, where they would receive a trial de novo (a new trial that erases everything that occurred in District Court).

12. If no plea bargain is agreed upon, the case will then be "passed for trial," and there is often a long delay between this point and the time that the trial actually begins. Trials are held in open court.


13. If the offender is found guilty, a separate hearing will be held for sentencing. This hearing is a public proceeding, and victims (or surviving family members in murder cases) have the right to address the court about the impact that the crime has had on them. For felonies and capital offenses, there is generally a six to eight week delay before sentencing.