What Is the State Criminal Process and Procedure?
- Criminal laws define criminal offenses and the penalties for those crimes.
- Criminal procedure refers to the rules that govern how the criminal justice system works.
- Rules concerning how a criminal investigation, arrest, trial, and appeals should happen are part of criminal procedure.
The procedures that guide a criminal case through trial court will depend on where the criminal charges are filed and prosecuted. Local, state, and federal governments each have their own rules of criminal procedure. Whether you have been charged with a crime, you are a suspect in a case, or have a loved one facing prosecution, learn more about the criminal justice system so you are prepared.
The best preparation you can do for a trial is to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. They will prepare a strong defense as well as make sure the prosecution follows all proper procedures.
Criminal laws define criminal offenses and the penalties for those crimes. They identify what is illegal, such as theft or murder, whether an offense is a felony or misdemeanor, and serve as the foundation for charging people with crimes.
Criminal procedure refers to the rules governing the operation of the criminal justice system and court systems. Rules concerning how a criminal investigation, arrest, trial, and appeals should happen are part of criminal procedure. Criminal procedure protects your rights during these processes, ensuring fair treatment, probable cause, due process, and protection against self-incrimination.
State laws determine that state’s criminal procedure. Most states model their criminal procedure after the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Even in states where laws differ from the federal rules, law enforcement must still respect the rights the U.S. Constitution grants you.
After being arrested, the police process your information and send it to the court. For less serious offenses, you may be able to post bail and go home until your arraignment.
The arraignment is the first formal court appearance of the criminal process. At this hearing, you have the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty along with the judge determining your bail. If you are granted bail, you may pay it and go home until your next appearance.
For more serious or violent charges, you may need to wait until your arraignment for the judge to determine your bail. The judge may also deny you bail, meaning you will stay in prison.
If you enter a not guilty plea at your arraignment, trial preparation will begin. In the United States, criminal defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Both the prosecution and your attorney will search for witnesses and evidence and investigate the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime. Police and prosecutors must hand over any evidence that they find to your attorney.
Attorneys on both sides will then determine whether they can reach a fair plea bargain to avoid a trial and potentially reduce your potential penalties.
If you decide to move forward with the trial, your attorney will craft a strategic defense, file the necessary documents, and attend all pretrial motion hearings with you. These motions often include trying to exclude evidence based on constitutional rights violations. Whether the police violated your rights during an arrest, interrogation, or investigation is often a subject of dispute. Depending on what your lawyer finds, they may file a motion for dismissal based on lack of evidence.
Once all discovery and pretrial motions are completed, the trial will start. Criminal trials that are in front of a jury will start with voir dire, or jury selection. If you decide on a bench trial, in which the judge decides your innocence or guilt, then jury selection is skipped.
The attorneys will then present opening statements on the case. The trial then proceeds with the introduction of evidence, the examination and cross-examination of witnesses and experts, and then ends with closing arguments. You do not have to testify if you do not want to. You should make this choice in consultation with your attorney.
Then the jury or the judge will issue a verdict. Judges serve as an impartial party in charge of the legal proceedings, ensuring both sides follow the proper procedures of the court, that rights are protected, and whether there is enough evidence to support the charges.
The standard for a guilty verdict is beyond a reasonable doubt. If you are found guilty or plead guilty, the final step in the criminal process is the sentencing hearing. At this proceeding, the judge will weigh a number of factors to determine the appropriate sentence for your offense.
Sentencing factors include the circumstances surrounding your criminal act, whether you have a prior criminal record, the minimum and maximum penalties provided by law, and victim impact statements. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney advocate for you at every step of the criminal case, including at sentencing, is critical to reaching the best possible outcome you can under the circumstances.
Many defendants who are found guilty choose to appeal their convictions. Depending on what state you live in, the appeal may go to a court of appeals and eventually the state supreme court. The appeal is almost always limited to the information presented at trial, which is why having knowledgeable representation during the trial is so important. The appeal may be related to evidence admitted at trial or it could relate to a constitutional rights violation that occurred prior to the trial, such as an unreasonable search or seizure.
Generally speaking, if you plead guilty, you will not be able to appeal your conviction. However, depending on the circumstances, you may be able to appeal a conviction even after a guilty plea.
Throughout all these steps of criminal proceedings, it’s essential to have the guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney to protect your rights. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you will receive a public defender’s representation so that you do not have to go through the process alone.
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