Criminal cases are best thought of as being divided into stages.  These stages involve various procedures that help to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused. 

According to criminal procedure laws, criminal defendant can often have different rights depending on the stage of the criminal process.  For example, a criminal defendant generally does not have the right to have a lawyer present during pre-trial photograph identification.  On the other hand, the defendant will always be entitled to a lawyer during formal cross-examination hearings.

What are the Different Stages in the Criminal Process?

The overview of the criminal process involves the following stages:

  • Investigation:  This is where police and other authorities seek to gather information regarding criminal activity and possible suspects.  It is at this stage where police must secure a search or arrest warrant to discover evidence or to conduct interrogations.
  • Arrest:  This is where the suspect is detained and sometimes held in custody while charges are being brought against them.  In some cases an arrest warrant is needed. 
  • Complaint / Information / Indictment:  This is where informal charges are brought against the suspect.  The suspect will be informed regarding what crime they are being charged with.  The charges are recorded in formal documents called a “complaint” or “information”.  This is also known as the “booking” stage.
  • Arraignment:  This is where the accused is summoned to court and formally charged with the crime in question.  The accused may have their lawyer present at the arraignment hearing.  At this point the accused may be required to enter in a plea, such as “guilty” or “not guilty”.
  • Bail:  Bail hearings allow a defendant to be released from jail while the court proceedings continue.  If they are summoned to court, they must make an appearance, or else they will forfeit their bail.
  • Plea Negotiations:  At any time after the formal charges have been filed, the defendant’s lawyer can engage in plea negotiations, or “Plea Bargaining”.  The attorney often attempts to have the charges reduced or dropped.
  • Trial:  Once the plea is finalized, trial formally begins, and the lawyers for each side present their arguments.  This stage includes opening statements, presentation of evidence, oral testimonies, witness examinations, and closing statements. 
  • Verdict:  Once the arguments are concluded, the jury will engage in deliberations, and the judge will present the final verdict.  Sentencing follows, wherein the appropriate legal consequences are applied against the defendant.
  • Appeal:  Appeals for a criminal trial are available only in some cases, mainly if an error was committed during the original trial.  A criminal retrial may also be requested under limited circumstances. 

To make things easier, all of the above stages may be categorized under three broader categories:  pre-trial, trial, and post-trial.  Also, the stages listed above are in chronological order, though there may be some overlap between different stages. 

Is the Criminal Process the Same in Every State?

No- each state or jurisdiction may have a different outline of the criminal process which they follow.  In general however, each state will follow the overview above to some degree, though they may use different names for each stage. 

Some cases do not necessarily involve every stage.  For example, most criminal trials do not involve an appeal or a retrial.  Also, in some cases plea bargaining is not necessary if the suspect does not wish to engage negotiations.

Do I Need a Criminal Lawyer?

If you are facing criminal charges, you have the right to an attorney.  Your lawyer can represent you throughout the various phases of the criminal justice process.  They can also help you obtain a reduced sentence or dropped charges, depending on your individual case.  Criminal laws vary widely from state to state; however, an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area will be able to provide advice on the criminal laws of your specific area.