RI Criminal Defense Lawyer

About the Rhode Island Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system in Rhode Island is comprised of both trial and appellate courts. Trial courts are where factual disputes are resolved and a defendant’s guilt or innocence is determined. Appellate courts review decisions of trial courts for
mistakes or errors. Generally speaking, a party dissatisfied with the decision of a trial court can appeal the decision to an appellate court. The appeals court may then approve the trial court findings, overrule or overturn them or send the case back
to the trial court for additional fact finding.

The trial courts in Rhode Island are the District and Superior Courts. These courts are grouped into four counties: Providence County, Kent County, Washington County and Newport County. Criminal cases are normally prosecuted in the county on where the
alleged crime was committed. For instance, a person charged with committing a crime in Providence will normally be prosecuted in Providence County. This same rule or analysis holds true throughout the State of Rhode Island and its four counties.

As a general rule, the Rhode Island District Court oversees the prosecution of misdemeanor crimes, meaning those punishable by up to one year or less in jail. District Court does not offer jury trials. Individuals who are prosecuted in District Court
and wish to exercise the right to trial will have their trial presided over by a judge alone. Persons seeking a jury trial at the outset can request to have their cases transferred to Superior Court. Alternatively, individuals who both proceed to trial
in District Court and are dissatisfied with the judge’s verdict can exercise the right to an appeal de novo in Superior Court. This means the District Court decision is vacated and the matter transfers to Superior Court where it starts over from the
beginning and where there is an absolute right to a jury trial. The Superior Court generally oversees prosecution of felony crimes, meaning those punishable by more than one year in jail.

There are exceptions to these rules for the District and Superior Courts. For example, the District Court handles initial appearances and bail hearings for individuals charged with felonies. Though the District Court does not have the power to oversee
the actual prosecution of felonies, it has limited authority to handle these initial aspects of felony cases. Another exception is that Superior Court, though the designated forum for felony prosecutions, can also oversee the prosecution of misdemeanors.
This happens, as described above, where a defendant either seeks transfer of his misdemeanor case out of District to Superior Court or where the defendant seeks in appeal de novo in Superior Court of an adverse District Court trial decision.

Rhode Island’s only appeals court is the Rhode Island Supreme Court. All adverse trial decisions are appealed there. The only exception to this rule is the appeal of an adverse District Court trial decision in a misdemeanor case. Initial appeals of such
decisions are in Superior Court where the case starts again from the beginning. However, if following an adverse trial decision in Superior Court of any kind, whether of a felony or appeal de novo of a misdemeanor prosecution, the finding must be appealed
to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The prosecuting authority for criminal cases in Rhode Island varies with offense type. As a general rule, misdemeanor offenses are prosecuted by the town or city where the alleged offense was committed. The arresting agency is responsible for assembling
the initial criminal case file and filing a criminal complaint in District Court. The same agency, always the Police Department, sends a representative from its Prosecution Division to initially appear in District Court at the time of arraignment, swear
or affirm the accuracy of the facts in support of the complaint, make an initial bail recommendation and pretrial release conditions to the Court, and request a date for the defendant’s next court appearance. Once the case is placed into the system
and filed in District Court, a lawyer representing the municipality, called a solicitor, is then charged with the case’s prosecution.

Felony offenses are prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office. If a misdemeanor case is transferred, at a defendant’s request, from District to Superior Court, the Attorney General’s then becomes responsible for its prosecution. Municipalities do not
prosecute matters in Superior Court regardless of the circumstances. The Attorney General’s Office is also responsible for representing the State at bail hearings in District Court in cases where a defendant has been accused of felony offenses.


If you have been charged with a crime in the State of Rhode Island, you need a skilled, criminal defense trial attorney who understands the complexities and levels of the Rhode Island criminal justice system. Call Criminal Defense Attorney John L. Calcagni III and the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III today for a free consultation at 401-351-5100.