The Criminal Case Process
If you or a loved one has recently been charged with a crime, you may be curious about how the criminal process works and what you should expect as your case moves forward. We’ve provided this brief overview of the criminal case process to give you a general sense of what to expect, although it is important to note that each case is different and each state has its own specific sets of rules on how cases move through the criminal justice system.
Arrest – the formal process where a person suspected of the commission of a crime is taken into custody and booked. Depending on the nature of the crime the defendant may have been given the option to post bail and leave jail
Informal Arraignment – the first hearing that will occur in your case. These hearings must happen shortly after the arrest if the defendant is still in custody. If he or she has posted bail and has been released the time constraints are a little looser. At this hearing the defendant will be assigned a public defender if he or she has not hired a private attorney and will formally be made aware of the initial charges.
Preliminary Hearing – typically occurs 7 – 10 days after the informal arraignment. At this point the prosecution must show there is enough evidence for the case to move forward. The prosecution will typically present witness testimony and evidence while the defense will not.
Discovery – process typically begins after the preliminary hearing. This is the formal process that requires both sides to exchange the evidence and information they have about the case. An experienced attorney can help you understand what each piece of evidence is and how it might affect the outcome of your case.
Formal Arraignment – generally occurs within 30 days of the preliminary hearing. The charges that are proven during the preliminary hearing are filed and the defendant has the opportunity to enter a plea on each charge.
Guilt Phase – the portion in the case where the defendant and prosecution may engage in discussions to resolve the case before trial. The defendant may agree to a lesser crime than is charged, may accept a smaller penalty or may limit the number of charges he or she pleads guilty to. If the case is not resolved during the guilt phase and no plea is struck, the case will proceed to trial.
Trial – the formal legal process where the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by a jury. Both sides will participate in the selection of the Jury, the presentation of their cases and will present closing arguments. After closing arguments the judge will provide formal instructions to the jury and the jury will be removed from the courtroom to make their decision, which is known as a verdict.
Verdict – the formal determination of the jury with respect to the charges brought against the defendant. The verdict is read in open court, if the defendant is found “Not Guilty” the case is over and the defendant moves on with his or her life. If the defendant is found “Guilty” the case will proceed to sentencing.
Sentencing – can occur immediately after a verdict is read or may be delayed. Generally speaking, at this point if the defendant is sentenced to serve time in jail he or she will be taken into custody.
Appeal – the opportunity for your attorney to present evidence to the court of appeal that a legal error occurred during the trial. If the defendant is not able to present a successful argument on appeal the conviction will stand and he or she will serve the remainder of the sentence.