Criminal procedure puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. It is up to the prosecution to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. The defense does not have to prove that they are innocent. Any doubt is resolved in favor of the defendant. The presumption of innocence is required in the United States. Basic rights include the right for a defendant to know what offense they have been arrested for or are being charged with.
Defendants have the right to appear before a judge within a certain time after being arrested. In the United States, defendants have the right to legal counsel. The government must provide any defendant who cannot afford their own lawyer with a lawyer paid for at the public expense.
What Is the Criminal Process?
The criminal process usually starts with law enforcement making a stop or an arrest. The criminal process can terminate at any point, depending on the facts of the case. You have certain rights at every phase of the criminal process. The following is a brief explanation of each stage from the time of the stop through the sentencing period.
- The Arrest: The police arrest someone based on probable cause that the person committed a criminal offense. The police do not charge the arrestee; they only gather the report and evidence surrounding the incident to the prosecuting attorney. The prosecuting attorney will then decide to file charges or dismiss the accusations.
- Filing of the Complaint: After the prosecuting attorney receives all the evidence and police reports surrounding the arrest, the prosecuting attorney decides to file the charges or dismiss the evidence based on lack of evidence or occurrence of a crime. The prosecuting attorney files the document with the court, asserting the charges against you.
- Arraignment/First Appearance: You are formally informed of the charges and your constitutional rights that you may exercise at the arraignment. Bail is regularly set during the arraignment. Bail is used by the court similar to an “insurance policy” that you will appear on future court dates. The judge decides the bail amount depending on the two factors: 1) If you risk fleeing the country, the court will not give you bail, and you may remain in custody. 2) If you pose a risk of danger to the community if released.
- Discovery: Discovery is the process in which defendants and prosecutors find out about the other side’s case. Historically, prosecutors weren’t entitled to information about a defendant’s case. However, in recent years, discovery statutes have required a two-way exchange of evidence in efforts to determine the truth, save time, and protect victims and witnesses. Examples of discovery material include police reports, witness statements, photographs, videos, and any other information that the parties plan to use at trial. The U.S. Constitution requires prosecutors to provide the defense with any evidence that might hurt the prosecution’s case. This evidence is called exculpatory evidence.
- Plea bargaining: Plea bargaining is a common way to resolve criminal cases. A plea bargain is an agreement between the defendant and the prosecution to resolve a criminal case without going to trial. Typically, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to one or more charged offenses, and the prosecutor agrees to dismiss or reduce the remaining charges or recommend a lighter sentence. In most jurisdictions, plea bargaining can occur anytime after the defendant has been charged. Plea bargains can take place up to and including the morning of the trial. The defendant can even accept a plea bargain mid-trial.
- Preliminary Hearing: Preliminary Hearings are held in all felony offenses to review probable cause. The preliminary hearing is used for the judge to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the charges against you. When the judge determines probable cause, he forwards the case to the Superior Court for trial. At the Preliminary Hearing, the district attorney or the judge can add additional charges if the evidence allows it.
- Arraignment in the Superior Court: If there is probable cause to support the charges against you, the prosecutor will file a charging document called Information in the Superior Court. The Information asserts the charges which you are going against at trial. At this time, you are informed of the charges and your constitutional rights.
- Pre-trial Conference: The defense attorney debates the case with the prosecuting attorney at the pre-trial conference, usually involving the judge. At this stage, the defense attorney can work out a plea deal in your favor or a plea bargain reducing the charges on certain conditions. The defense attorney can also provide more evidence and information in your favor to prove your innocence at the conference.
- Trial: If no plea deal or plea bargain is worked out between the two parties, the case will go to trial. During the jury trial, you are allowed to have a jury of 12 neutral jurors. Both the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney have a chance to make opening statements, introduce witnesses and evidence, cross-examine witnesses and make closing arguments. During the discussion period of the case, the jury resolves whether the prosecution has met the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury finds you not guilty, all charges against you are dropped, and you are free to go.
- Sentencing: If the ruling is not in your favor and you are found guilty, a sentencing hearing gives whether the judge decides the appropriate punishment for the conviction. Punishments could vary from probation to time in state prison depending on the seriousness of the crime
- Collateral Consequences: A conviction can have several additional penalties in addition to any sentence imposed by the court. In felony cases, these penalties include losing the right to vote, losing the right to possess a firearm, loss of the right to associate with other criminals, or being forced to register as a sex offender. A prior conviction can lead to harsher penalties for future convictions.
- Appeals & Writs: After a conviction, you have the right to file an appeal to the appellate court with the argument that the trial court made legal mistakes, resulting in an unfavorable decision. If the defense can prove that the trial court made legal mistakes, or you were denied due process of law or a fair trial, the appellate court may reverse the lower court’s decision.
- Expungement: After a certain time, you may be able to file for an expungement in which the conviction that you received may be removed and sealed from your records. The expungement can usually be granted after successfully completing all probationary periods.
Contacting an Attorney for Help during the Criminal Process
If you are involved in a crime, you should immediately contact a criminal defense attorney. Your attorney will help you understand your rights and represent your best interests throughout the criminal process.
LegalMatch’s services can help you find the right criminal defense attorney for your situation. Use our database to find an experienced lawyer in your area. There is no fee to schedule a consultation, and our services are always confidential.