Criminal prosecution unfolds in a series of stages, starting with the arrest and ending at some point before, during or after trial. Most criminal cases end when a defendant accepts a plea deal offered by the prosecution. In a plea bargain, the defendant decides to plead guilty before trial to the charges against him or her, or to lesser charges in exchange for a more lenient sentence or the dismissal of associated charges.
A criminal case begins with an arrest by law enforcement.
A police officer may arrest an individual if:
- The officer notices the individual committing a criminal offense
- The officer has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed by that individual
- The officer arrests the individual under the lawful authority of a valid arrest warrant
Once the person is arrested, law enforcement books him or her. When the police finishes the booking proceedings, they place the offender in custody. Alternatively, if the suspect committed a minor offense, law enforcement officials may issue a citation with instructions to appear in court at a later date.
If a suspect in custody is granted bail, he or she may pay the bail amount in exchange for release. Being release on bail is interpreted as a promise to appear at all schedule court proceedings. On the other hand, a suspect may be released on his or her “own recognizance,” meaning that they do not need to post bail but promise – in writing – to appear at all schedule court proceedings.
Arraignment is the suspect’s first court appearance. During arraignment, the judge details the charges filed against the defendant. The defendant decides to either plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest to those charges. In addition, the judge reviews the defendant’s bail and set dates for future court appearances.
Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury Proceedings
The government often brings criminal charges in one of two following ways:
- By a “bill of information” secured by a preliminary hearing
- Grand jury indictment
While cases involving the federal system need to be brought via indictment, states – on the other hand – are free to use either process. Both of these examples are used to establish the existence of probable cause. If probable cause is not established, a defendant will not be forced to stand trial.
A preliminary hearing – also known as a preliminary examination – is a process in which counsel questions witnesses and both parties make arguments. The judge then determines the finding of probable cause. Alternatively, the grand jury only hears from the prosecutor. The grand jury may call their own witnesses and schedule the performance of further investigations. The grand jury then decides whether sufficient evidence has been presented to indict the defendant.
Brought by both the prosecution and defense, pre-trial motions are meant to resolve final issues and establish evidence and testimony admissible in trial.
The judge or the jury will either decide whether the defendant is guilty or not. Since the prosecution bears the burden of proof in the criminal case, they must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the criminal offense charged.
The defendant has the right to a jury trial in most criminal cases. A jury or a judge makes the final decision of innocence or guilt after listening to opening and closing statements, examination and cross-examination of witnesses, as well as jury instructions.
If a jury is unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the judge may declare a mistrial, and the case will either be dismissed or a new jury will be picked. If a judge or jury finds the defendant guilty, the court will also provide a sentence for the defendant.
In the sentencing part of the criminal case, the court decides the proper punishment for the convicted defendant. The court considers a number of factors – such as nature and severity of the crime, criminal history, and even the degree of remorse – to figure out an appropriate sentence.
A person convicted of a crime may request that his or her case be reviewed by a higher court. If that court discovers an error in the case or the sentence imposed, the court may reverse the conviction or determine that the case be re-tried.