A criminal case is a type of court proceeding in which the defendant is tried for conduct considered illegal by the legislature or government. A criminal case typically begins after arrest when the person is informed of their charges, usually at a hearing called an “indictment”. 

In a criminal case, the defendants are always innocent until proven guilty by a state prosecutor. Most criminal cases are tried by a judge in front of a jury, and can result in sentences under criminal law such as a fine and/or jail time. 

What Are the Steps in a Criminal Case?

After a criminal defendant has been arrested or charged for a crime, all criminal courts follow the same procedures:

1. Arraignment: The first step in a criminal case is for the defendant to show or appear in court. At this stage, the defendant’s charges are formally recorded and the charges against the defendant is read before a judge

2. Preliminary Hearing: This is a evidentiary hearing where the DA must prove to the judge that there is strong evidence to charge the defendant for the crime at issue

3. Pretrial Conference: A court hearing to resolve all issues before formal trial

4. Plea Hearing: Hearing where the defendant enters a plea of guilty or not guilty. At this stage the defendant will be offered some type of agreement by the prosecutor.

5. Trial: A hearing at which evidence is present to a judge or jury and it is determined whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt

6. Sentencing: a courts decision on defendant’s penalties for crimes that are established

7. Appeal: A defendant may appeal their case anytime after sentencing

Is a Criminal Case the Same as a Civil Case?

No – one of the biggest differences between the criminal and civil justice systems is that in a criminal case, it’s the state that files against the individual.  In a civil case, it’s usually between two private citizens or businesses.  

Standards of proof are different for criminal cases as well; the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Different lawyers may also work in different fields of law. A criminal justice lawyer works with criminal law, but other lawyers might focus on other fields.

Lastly, sentencing options are different as well (civil cases typically don’t involve jail sentences).

What Are Some Categories of Criminal Cases?

States may each have a different way of organizing or classifying criminal cases.  In most states, criminal cases are categorized according to the seriousness of the crime. Citations and misdemeanors may be lowest in severity, usually resulting in fines and/or a short period in jail. Felony crimes are considered the most severe, and may be accompanied by a longer sentence in prison (rather than a local jail).

Crimes may also be classified according to the nature of the conduct. For instances, there are “crimes against the person”, which involve bodily harm to another person. Examples of these include assault and battery, and all kinds of homicide cases.  “Crimes against property” or “property crime” involve damage to or theft of property. Examples include shoplifting, robbery, and arson.

What Are Some Common Criminal Defenses?

The choice of defense strategy in criminal cases will depend on the nature of the case, and the facts that are available to the defense lawyer. For most crimes against the person, self-defense is a common legal defense, especially in cases involving a fight or altercation. Other common criminal defenses include intoxication, duress/necessity, mistake, alibi, and others. Again, each case is different, and some criminal defenses are not available in every situation.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With a Criminal Case?

Understanding criminal laws and criminal defenses can be difficult.  It is in your best interests to hire a criminal defense lawyer if you need assistance with any type of criminal case. Your lawyer will be able to provide you with legal advice as they represent you during the formal court hearings. Also, a lawyer can advise you on how any criminal defenses might work in your favor for your case.