The legal system is complicated and there are many different proceedings that occur in any given criminal case. This process starts with a suspect being arrested, and they usually have their bail set before they are arraigned. When they are arraigned, they enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest.
Once it is determined that there is enough evidence to prosecute them, they are brought to trial before a jury. The jury hears all of the evidence and rules “guilty” or “not guilty”, and then the judge decides upon a punishment. After this, a convicted defendant has the right to appeal a guilty ruling.
The first thing that happens in a criminal case is that a suspect is normally arrested by a law enforcement officer. There are three circumstances in which a police officer can normally arrest a suspect:
- If they see the suspect actively committing a crime
- If they have probable cause to suspect that the person has committed a crime
- If the officer has a valid arrest warrant for the person
After being arrested, the suspect is booked by the police department and taken into custody. If the suspect is believed to only have committed a minor offense, they might be quickly released with just a citation and instructions to appear in court on a certain date.
Depending on the nature of the crime the suspect is believed to have committed, they may or not be granted bail.
This means that the suspect has to pay the bail amount in order to be released, on the condition that they agree to attend all future court dates. Bail might be granted immediately after a suspect has been booked, it can also be given at a later bail review hearing.
For minor offenses, suspects are also sometimes released “on their own recognizance”. This is when a suspect agrees in writing to attend all future court dates but does not have to pay bail.
The first court date that a suspect normally has to attend is their arraignment. This is when a judge formally reads the charges that they are facing, and the suspect enters a plea of “guilty”, “not guilty”, or “no contest”. You can learn more about entering a plea here.
Preliminary Hearing or Grand Jury Proceedings
There are two ways that a criminal case can proceed from here. There are preliminary hearings and there are grand jury proceedings. These hearings do not determine guilt or innocence, they are held to determine if there is enough evidence to prosecute a suspect.
During a preliminary hearing, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney are allowed to make arguments and question witnesses. The judge uses this information to determine if there is enough evidence to force a suspect to stand trial.
A grand jury hearing is different, because this does not give the defense attorney the opportunity to make arguments or question witnesses. During a grand jury hearing, only the prosecutor is allowed to make arguments. However, the grand jury is allowed to call their own witnesses and demand that further investigation be conducted.
Before the trial, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney file motions in an attempt to resolve the case without bringing it to trial, and to establish what evidence and testimony will be permissible in court.
During the trial, the judge or the jury will decide that the defendant is either guilty or not guilty. During a criminal trial, the prosecution bears the burden of proving the defendant guilty. If the prosecution cannot prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury has to vote not guilty.
The jury makes their deliberations after they carefully listen to the opening and closing statements of both the defense and the prosecution. They also have to listen to the witness testimony and any special jury instructions that they are given.
Sometimes a jury is not able to come to a unanimous verdict on whether or not a suspect is guilty or innocent. When this happens, the judge usually has to declare a mistrial. Usually, the case will either be dismissed entirely, or a new jury will be selected and the trial will start all over.
If on the other hand, the jury finds that a suspect is in fact guilty, then it will soon be time for the judge to decide upon the suspect’s sentence.
At this stage in the criminal case proceedings, the judge has to decide upon the appropriate punishment for the suspect. There are several factors that a judge has to consider when determining this sentence.
What was the crime? How severe was it? Does the convicted defendant have a criminal record, and do they have a history of this specific type of crime that they have been convicted of? Are they showing any remorse for their actions? Are there any extenuating circumstances in their personal life that are a factor in why they did what they did?
These are all things that the judge has to consider when deciding upon a convicted defendant’s sentence.
Even if a suspect does get convicted and sentenced to prison during their trial, that is not the end of their criminal case. They still have the right to appeal the decision by asking a higher court to review the case.
If the higher court finds that there was an error in the defendant’s sentencing, or misconduct during their trial, the higher court will intervene. This usually means that they will reverse the original conviction, or they will order a new trial to begin.
A convicted defendant has the right to appeal their sentence or conviction, but the prosecution does not have the right to appeal a not guilty verdict unless new evidence is discovered relating to the case. This is a constitutional protection that is found in the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from Double Jeopardy.
There is a lot that happens in a criminal case. This is why it is always recommended that anyone facing criminal charges of any sort seek the legal counsel of a licensed attorney. This is a constitutional right found in the Sixth Amendment.