Say that jerk falls off his bar stool after you barely even punch him and wants to make a federal case out of it. Or you forget to check out at Dominick’s, and the security guard thinks you meant to steal that six-pack. Or you’re careless enough to smoke your joint in public and a squad car happens by. The long arm of the Chicago Police Department is about to grab your collar. Here’s what will happen next.

If it’s merely a violation of a city ordinance and you’re carrying identification, and the computer in the officer’s car shows your record is clean, you’ll simply get a ticket. The ticket will tell you what date to appear before an administrative officer if you want to contest it and try to avoid the fine.

But if the law you’re accused of breaking is a misdemeanor or a felony, you can be arrested. That’ll happen if the officer observed you committing the crime or thinks he has probable cause to believe you’ve broken the law, or if the person you allegedly victimized signs a sworn complaint.

You’ll likely be handcuffed, told you’re under arrest, and advised of your Miranda rights. The arresting officer will perform a “custodial” search, patting you down, checking your pockets, unzipping your jacket. Then you’ll be driven to one of the city’s 25 district stations.

There, you’ll sit in a chair or bench, possibly handcuffed to a ring on the wall, while the arresting officer asks you for your name and address and other basic information he needs to complete his arrest report. He’ll show the arrest report to his sergeant, and the sergeant will show it to the watch commander; in the unlikely event that either finds the arrest improper you’ll be released.

If you’re not released, you’ll surrender your belt, shoelaces, wallet, jewelry, and other possessions. They’ll go in a plastic bag that’ll be sealed and held by the lockup keeper. Large amounts of money and particularly expensive jewelry go in special property bags.

You’ll be fingerprinted, photographed, and allowed to make one phone call. You’ll be searched again, this time by the lockup keeper. (You won’t have to strip for any of the searches, although you may be asked to unzip your pants.) After the search by the lockup keeper, you’ll be placed in a cell, where you’ll wait while the computer checks your fingerprints to see if you have any outstanding arrest warrants or if you’re on probation. That could take up to 12 hours. If you’ve timed your visit well you’ll be treated to the bologna sandwich that the police serve three times daily.

If the computer run shows you have no outstanding warrants and aren’t on probation, and if you’re charged with a misdemeanor, you’ll be released from the station. You’ll be asked to post a $100 bond, but if you don’t have that you’ll get a free individual recognizance bond, commonly known as an I-bond. (Bond and bail are interchangeable terms, with the former used more often in Cook County.) You’ll also get the charge lodged against you and a court date.

If you are charged with a felony, have an outstanding warrant, or, in some cases, are on probation, there’ll be no bonding out at the station. A police wagon will pick up you and your comrades, make stops at other police stations, and take everyone to the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th Street and California. You’ll be escorted into the basement of the courthouse, where you’ll be searched again and then sent to a crowded holding cell to wait for bond court to begin.

The vast majority of people who make it this far into the criminal justice machine are too poor to have a private lawyer on hand and are represented by public defenders in their bond hearings. It usually doesn’t make any difference. Bond hearings are hasty proceedings, and your lawyer is going to have little time to speak on your behalf. A good defense lawyer will try to convince the judge you’re not a flight risk by stressing the ties you have to the community–your job or the classes you’re taking, the length of time you’ve spent living at the same address, the family members you live with. Lawyers get this information from cursory interviews before court begins.

Hearings start at 1 PM on weekdays and noon on Saturdays and holidays. Police routinely tell relatives of defendants that bond court starts at 9 and, says Susana Ortiz, a private defense lawyer, “then the family members wander around the courthouse for four hours.”

You won’t actually make it into a courtroom for your hearing, because seven years ago the county switched to video bond court proceedings. Prisoners are lined up in a hallway in the basement and led one by one before a camera. The judge upstairs appears on a monitor, and if he looks up from the paperwork he’ll see your image on one too. The prosecutor will briefly recount the alleged crime and inform the judge of any criminal convictions you have or warrants issued because of previous failures to appear in court. After your lawyer spends a minute trying to persuade the judge that you’ll show up in court if granted a bond, the judge will announce his decision.

If you’re charged with a minor felony–possession of a small amount of cocaine or heroin, for instance–and you have no felony convictions and no bond forfeiture warrants, you may get an I-bond, in which case you’ll be released soon after the hearing. Otherwise you’ll likely get a bond that requires a 10 percent deposit: a $10,000 bond, for instance, will require $1,000 to be posted for you to be freed. After the hearing, you’ll be taken to jail, but you’ll be released later that day if someone posts bond on your behalf. Bonds are posted in a jail office behind the courthouse.

If no one posts your bond, and the sheriff doesn’t toss you an I-bond to relieve the overcrowding, you’ll have

a nice long stay in jail while the case against you is pending.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Tim Boyle/Getty Images.