Although criminal law procedures vary by state, the basic process is generally the same no matter where you are arrested. The primary objective of the criminal process is to determine whether there is enough evidence to prove that you committed a crime. You are presumed innocent, so the burden is on the prosecution to establish your guilt.
Arresting the Suspect
The criminal process typically starts with an arrest. An arrest occurs when police formally take you into custody. If that happens, you have the right to remain silent and not answer any questions posed by the police. You will usually be advised of this right, and your right to have an attorney, although police are not required to inform you of these rights unless they choose to question you.
The police may hold you until arraignment, or you may be released with information about the first court date. If you are released and fail to appear at the arraignment, a judge will issue a warrant ordering the police to bring you before the court.
Entering a Plea at the Arraignment
The arraignment is the first court hearing following an arrest. The judge at this hearing will tell you which crimes you are accused of committing, and you'll be required to enter a plea to each charge. You may plead "guilty" or "not guilty." If you want an attorney and cannot afford one, the judge will assign an attorney to you at no charge. If you are in police custody, the judge may also set bail. Bail is an amount of money you can pay to the court in exchange for being released from police custody while your criminal case works through the system.
Determining Whether a Trial Can be Held
After the arraignment, the next step in the process is usually a preliminary hearing or a grand jury proceeding. A preliminary hearing gives the prosecution a chance to convince a judge that there's enough evidence to go to trial. The prosecution can present evidence and question witnesses, and you can do the same.A grand jury proceeding allows the prosecution to present evidence to a special jury.
The prosecutors will attempt to convince the grand jury that enough evidence exists to charge you with the crime. This is called an indictment. You are not allowed to present evidence or question witnesses at a grand jury proceeding. If you are charged by the grand jury, you will have a second arraignment on the grand jury charges.
The Trial Processing and Sentencing
A trial allows you and the prosecution to present different versions of the crime you are accused of committing. The prosecution presents its case first. You have the right to question witnesses called by the prosecution. At the end of the prosecution's case, you present your version of events, and the prosecution may question each of your witnesses. At the end of your presentation, the jury will try to reach a decision and you'll be informed of the verdict. A jury may find you guilty or not guilty. If the jury finds you guilty, you'll be sentenced by the judge.
A Criminal Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding criminal procedures is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.