When the state brings charges against someone for an alleged offense, it is required to follow specific rules of criminal procedure in order to maintain consistency in the system and protect defendants’ constitutional rights. A criminal case has numerous distinct stages, only one of which is the trial.
Criminal cases usually begin with the defendant’s arrest by police. This may occur after police respond to a call or during a traffic stop, or when police identify a suspect during an investigation. Some jurisdictions require police to obtain an arrest warrant in many circumstances.
If bail is set, and the defendant can pay it, they may be free from confinement through most or all stages of the criminal case.
Once a person is in police custody, a magistrate or other judge may grant bail. In determining the amount of bail, a judge may consider factors like the severity of the alleged offense and the likelihood that the person would return to court throughout the case. A judge may order a person held without bail if the circumstances weigh substantially against letting him or her out. In some cases, such as minor offenses or a person with no criminal history, a judge may allow the defendant’s release without bail, or on his or her “own recognizance.” This requires a written agreement to return to court for all appearances.
A defendant’s first court appearance is known as the arraignment. At this appearance, the defendant has the right to have the charges against him or her read by the judge. This is also often the time when the defendant may plead “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest.” The court may set dates for future proceedings and deadlines for motions and other filings.
Indictment or Information
Prosecutors may bring formal charges in any of several different ways, depending on the jurisdiction. They may file an information or complaint, or they may seek a grand jury indictment. Federal charges require an indictment. Grand jury proceedings are typically not open to the public, and only the state may present evidence. A preliminary hearing on an information or complaint, however, is an adversarial proceeding where a defendant may present evidence to challenge the existence of probable cause.
Preliminary Hearings and Pre-Trial Motions
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Depending on the volume and complexity of motions, hearings, and discovery, this phase of a criminal case may last the longest, subject to the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.
Most criminal cases involve a period of time during which each side prepares its case while also negotiating a possible plea. Either side may also bring motions seeking to dispose of certain issues before trial. A defendant might bring motions to suppress evidence obtained in violation of his or her rights, which may be inadmissible under the exclusionary rule. Shortly before trial, each side may bring motions in limine, which ask the court to exclude evidence or testimony regarding certain matters.
A defendant has the right to a trial by jury in federal criminal cases, as well as many state proceedings. They can waive jury trial and have a bench trial, in which case the judge will decide both questions of law and fact. The state presents its case first, followed by the defendant. At the close of evidence, the jury deliberates and renders a verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty.” If the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, the court may declare a mistrial, in which case the state may be able to re-try the case with a new jury.
If the judge or jury finds the defendant guilty, the court will determine the punishment. Federal sentencing guidelines and similar state guidelines often define minimum and maximum sentences and identify factors the court may consider. The court may hold a separate sentencing hearing, at which the state may present evidence in support of a harsh sentence, and the defendant may request leniency by presenting evidence of mitigating factors.
A defendant may request review of his or her conviction by an appellate court. An appeal must allege specific errors or abuses of discretion by the trial court. The appellate court may affirm the conviction, reverse it, or remand the case for retrial.