The procedure of a state criminal case greatly depends 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.
State level criminal procedure is determined by the criminal laws in each individual state. 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 comply with the protections offered to criminal defendants by the Constitution. A crime may be prosecuted in state courts or in federal court, and in some rare cases, in both. Federal cases have their own unique considerations.
After being arrested, the police process your information and send it over to the court to begin the criminal procedure. For less serious offenses, you may be able to post bail and go home until your arraignment. For more serious or violent charges, you may need to wait until your arraignment for the judge to determine your bail.
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.
If you are denied bail or your bail is too high for you to afford, you may request another hearing for a judge to reconsider the decision after weighing any mitigating factors you present. These factors include any criminal history, likelihood of returning to court, circumstances surround the alleged crime, public safety, as well as ties to the community.
No matter the circumstance of your bail, you have the right to an attorney. Some people qualify for a public defender, but you also have the opportunity to hire your own criminal defense lawyer to work on your case.
After your arraignment, if you enter a not guilty plea, that means that trial preparation begins. In the United States, for criminal cases, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The government, as well as your attorney, search for and find evidence and investigate the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime. The police may continue to investigate the crime as well, turning over the evidence to the prosecution who in turn is obligated to turn over that information to the defense team as required by law. In addition, both sides look for witnesses to attest to your innocence or guilt in the matter.
After discovery and trial preparation is done, attorneys on both sides will determine whether they can reach an agreement on a fair plea bargain to avoid a trial and prosecution and potentially receive reduced penalties.
If you decide to move forward with the trial, your attorney can help you craft a strategic defense along with filing the necessary documents and attending all pretrial motion hearings with you. These motions often include trying to exclude evidence based on constitutional rights violations. Whether the police have violated your rights during an arrest, an interrogation, or during an investigation is often a subject of dispute to be argued vigorously by your defense lawyer. In addition, the defense may move for a motion for dismissal based on lack of evidence, or changing the venue of the proceedings as allowed by law.
The prosecution may choose to proceed with evidence provided by law enforcement that needs the approval of the court first. Some potentially prejudicial evidence requires a hearing in order to be deemed admissible in any later proceedings.
Once all discovery and pretrial motions are completed, the prosecutor and defense are ready to go forward with the trial. Criminal trials that are in front of a jury will start with “voir dire” or jury selection. If the defendant has decided on a bench trial, in which the judge decides the defendant’s innocence or guilt, then the jury selection is not needed.
After choosing a jury, or after deciding to have a bench trial, the attorneys 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 finally ends with closing arguments or statements. The defendant is not required to testify under the law, and many choose whether or not to testify based on the advice of their counsel.
Then the jury, or the judge in the case of a bench trial, will determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent based on the law applied to the facts of the case. Throughout the proceedings 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 the evidence offered to the jury is admissible.
The standard for a guilty verdict is beyond a reasonable doubt. If you go through the trial process and are found guilty or plead guilty, the final step in your criminal court process in the sentencing hearing which involves the decision for punishment. At this proceeding, the judge will weigh a number of factors to determine the appropriate sentence of your offense.
Sentencing factors include the circumstances surrounding your criminal act, prior convictions, if any, 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.
If convicted by a jury or a judge, many defendants may choose to file an appeal. Depending on what state you live in, the appeal may go to a court of appeals and, depending on the facts and law at issue in the appeal, may even end up at 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 which occurred prior to the trial, such as an unreasonable search or seizure.
Generally speaking, defendants who plead guilty have more difficulty challenging their convictions. However, depending on the circumstances of your situation, you may be able to appeal a conviction even after a guilty plea. It is a good idea to consult with a criminal defense lawyer who is experienced with the appellate procedure.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified criminal procedure lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.