In the United States, there are two types of laws that punish wrongdoing and compensate victims. There are two types of laws: civil law and criminal law. In civil law, actions, behaviors, or inactions of one individual may cause injury to another. Penalties for any parties found liable for these acts are generally monetary but can also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders.
Behaviors that are considered to be crimes against society, the state, or the public are covered by criminal law. Generally, criminal penalties include fines, imprisonment, or a combination of both. Whether the accused is charged with a serious crime or a minor offense, they have the right to a trial as well as certain other legal protections.
What Is Criminal Procedure?
An individual accused of violating criminal laws is adjudicated through the criminal procedure process. A basic principle behind all criminal proceedings is known as the “presumption of innocence,” which states that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty.
The state prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime in question. The criminal justice system includes a variety of constitutional protections for defendants to prevent abuses.
Due to an individual’s presumption of innocence, the burden of proof lies with the state prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant actually committed the crime they are accused of. The federal criminal procedure differs from state to state, but it includes several Constitutional protections for defendants designed to prevent abuses of the justice system.
The Constitution protects individuals accused of crimes in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to:
- Fourth Amendment Rights: Fourth Amendment rights include the right for individuals to be free from illegal search and seizure. A search warrant may also be executed under this law;
- Fifth Amendment Rights: Fifth amendment rights include due process rights, the right to remain silent, Miranda rights, and the right against double jeopardy;
- Sixth Amendment Rights: Sixth amendment rights include the right to a speedy trial, the right to an impartial jury, the right to assistance of counsel, the right to confront witnesses, the right to be informed of the charges being brought against you, including the punishments, and the right to compel witnesses to appear in criminal court;
- Eighth Amendment Rights: Eighth amendment rights include rights involving setting bail and limitations on sentencing, especially prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishments; and
- Fourteenth Amendment Rights: Fourteenth amendment rights include several additional rights concerning due process rights.
The entirety of criminal procedure may be better understood as a timeline, which begins with the accusation and apprehension of an individual suspected of a crime and ends with a final verdict, appeal, or dismissal of criminal charges. Criminal procedural guidelines after trial also govern probation and parole.
All stages in the criminal process may be categorized under three broad categories: pre-trial, trial, and post-trial.
What Are the Pre Trial Stages of a Criminal Case?
In most criminal cases, there are several different criminal procedure phases, from the initial arrest to sentencing and appeal. The following is a general overview of the pre-trial phase of a criminal case:
- Arrest: An arrest occurs when a person is taken into police custody and is no longer free to leave or move about as they wish. An arrest does not require physical restraint such as handcuffs. For an arrest to occur, police authority must be exercised over a person. Typically, an arrest occurs in one of two ways:
- When a police officer has seen a person commit a crime; or
- When a police officer has probable cause to believe that a person has already committed or is going to commit a crime;
- Booking: After an individual is arrested, they are typically brought to the police station and “booked.” The booking process includes gathering personal information from the suspect, such as taking their fingerprints and confiscating any personal property that the suspect may have on them. The suspect is then placed in a holding cell or released after being booked;
- Bail: Bail is the legal term that is used to describe money that an arrested individual pays in exchange for their release from police custody. As a condition of posting bail, the suspect will agree to appear in court for all scheduled proceedings;
- Arraignment: Arraignment is the first actual court proceeding in a criminal case. During an arraignment, the judge reads the charges against the defendant and asks if they have an attorney. The judge will also ask the accused to enter their plea. There are three types of pleas: guilty, not guilty, and no contest. During the arraignment, future proceedings may also be scheduled;
- Plea Bargain: The next stage in the criminal process is the plea bargain. Many criminal cases typically end at this stage, as the defendant may agree to plead guilty. Alternatively, the defendant may plead guilty in exchange for a lesser punishment than they would receive if found guilty in court. It is also possible for defendants charged with multiple offenses to plead guilty to only one of the offenses in exchange for the prosecution dropping the others; and
- Preliminary Hearing: After the arraignment, if no plea bargain is entered, a preliminary hearing will be held. In this stage of the criminal process, the judge will consider the prosecution’s evidence and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the defendant.
What Is Included Under Criminal Procedure?
It is best to think of criminal procedure as a timeline starting with the suspect’s apprehension and ending with the final verdict or appeal. Other after-measures, such as probation or parole, are also governed by procedural guidelines.
Among the matters covered by criminal procedure are:
- Stop, Detention, and Arrest
- Search and Seizure
- Booking and Filing Charges
- Suspect/Eyewitness Lineup Identifications
- Appointment of Counsel (assigning a court-appointed lawyer)
- Plea Bargaining
- Probation and Parole
What Is the Trial Stage of a Criminal Case?
When a criminal case proceeds to trial, the trier of fact will decide if the defendant committed the crime. In criminal cases, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This means there cannot be any reasonable doubt in the minds of the judge or jurors that the defendant committed the crime.
Trials in criminal cases can be divided into the following phases:
- Jury Selection: First, a pool of potential jurors will be gathered and asked a number of questions. Both the prosecution and defense will then exclude a certain number of people from the jury and select the appropriate number of jurors to preside over the trial;
- Opening Statements: Once the trial begins, each side will present an overview of the case from their perspective. In most cases, the prosecution will speak first, followed by the defense;
- Witness Testimony: After opening statements, each side will call witnesses and ask them questions about the case or the defendant. After the prosecution calls its witnesses, the defense can cross-examine them. The defense will then call their witnesses, who the prosecution will then cross-examine;
- Closing Arguments: After all of the witness testimony, the prosecution and then the defense will each make a brief statement that summarizes their side of the case;
- Jury Instruction: After closing statements, the judge will explain to the jurors the elements of the crime that the defendant was charged with, as well as the legal standard that the jurors must apply when determining whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of committing that crime; and
- Verdict: Finally, the jury will consider the evidence that was presented, apply the proper legal standard and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Jury verdicts in criminal cases must be unanimous in most states
Do I Need a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
A mistrial or other serious error could occur if the prosecution violates criminal procedure rules. For instance, evidence seized from a wrongful search will be excluded from the trial if the prosecution fails to comply with search and seizure guidelines. Therefore it is important for any person being charged with a crime to work with a criminal lawyer.