A criminal case consists of a number of phases, from the initial arrest to sentencing and possible appeal. The following is an overview of what to expect during the pre-trial phase of a criminal case.


  • A person is taken into police custody and is no longer free to leave or move about.
  • Physical restraint such as handcuffs is not necessary: all that is required is exercise of police authority over a person.
  • An arrest can occur either when a police officer has seen a person commit a crime, or has probable cause to believe that a person has committed or is about to commit a crime.


  • After being arrested, a person is usually brought to the police station and “booked”, or entered into the police system.
  • This process can include gathering personal information, taking fingerprints, and confiscating personal property.
  • After booking, the person is typically placed into a holding cell of some sort.


  • Bail is the term used for money paid by an arrested individual in exchange for their release from custody.
  • The individual agrees to appear in court for all scheduled proceedings as a condition of this release.
  • In some cases, the individual is not allowed to post bail right after booking, and needs to wait either until a bail hearing is held, or for the arraignment. If this is the case, a judge will decide whether to release the individual on bail, and can set the bail amount.


  • The arraignment is the first court proceeding in a criminal case.
  • The judge reads the criminal charges against the person, asks them if they have an attorney, and asks them to enter their plea (usually guilty, not guilty, or no contest).
  • Future proceedings, such as the preliminary hearing and the trial, may be scheduled
  • The prosecution gives the defendant and his or her attorney any documents related to the case, such as the police report.
  • If the crime the person is charged with may result in a jail sentence, the defendant has a right to an attorney, even if they cannot afford one. If they cannot afford a lawyer, but wish to have one, the judge will appoint a lawyer to represent the defendant at this point.

Plea Bargain

  • Many criminal cases end at this stage.
  • The defendant agrees to plea guilty, sometimes to a lesser charge than the one they were originally arrested for, or sometimes for a lesser punishment than they might receive if found guilty in a trial.
  • If a defendant is charged with multiple offenses, he or she can sometimes plead guilty to one of the offenses, and the prosecution will agree to drop the other charges.
  • Plea bargains can either be agreed, where the prosecution and defense both agree on the punishment, or unagreed, where each side suggests a punishment to the judge, and the judge chooses whichever he or she feels is appropriate.
  • In some states, an unagreed plea is said to be “defense capped”, meaning that if the judge chooses any level of punishment that is more severe than that suggested by the defendant, the defendant can withdraw their plea of guilty, and go to trial.

Preliminary Hearing

  • After arraignment, if there is no plea bargain, a preliminary hearing is held
  • At this point, the judge listens to the prosecution’s evidence, and decides whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the defendant with the crime.
  • The role of the preliminary hearing differs from state to state.

Do I Need A Lawyer?

At any stage of a criminal case, it is important to have a criminal defense lawyer. The criminal law system is very complicated, and it is important to have someone on your side who understands the law and the process. If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to contact an exeperienced attorney as soon as possible. A criminal defense attorney can inform you of your rights, guide you through the process, and argue on your behalf.