Criminal Law Basics:  How Does the Criminal Law System Work?

If you are facing a criminal charge, you may be wondering how the criminal law system works.  This article will walk you through the main steps in a typical criminal case.  

  1. Arrest and Jail.  The typical start of a criminal case is the arrest by the police.  From there, there are three main scenarios:  

1) the defendant can be released from jail if the prosecutor decides to drop the case,

2)  the defendant posts bail/bond, and is released with the promise to appear,

3) the defendant stays in jail.

  1. Charging.  The police write a report.  The prosecutor reviews the report and has discretion to decide whether or not to file charges and which ones. Charges are typically filed within 48 hours of the arrest if the defendant is in custody.  

 

  1. Arraignment.  This is the defendant’s first appearance in court to find out what the charges are and to enter a plea, which is very often “Not Guilty.”  Even if you think you are guilty, it is often advisable to enter a “Not Guilty” plea at this stage of the process.  After the plea is entered, the judge will either release the defendant on his or her own recognizance, or set bail for the defendant’s release, or require that he or she stay in jail.

 

  1. Pre-trial. In the interim before the trial, there can be additional hearings.  For example, in felony cases, a preliminary hearing is held, where the judge makes sure that there is enough evidence for the case to continue.  In some cases, the defendant will concede that sufficient evidence exists, and waive the preliminary hearing.  This pre-trial time is the time for discovery, which is when the prosecution and defense can exchange documents.  During this time, the defense attorney will research the facts in more detail.  Motions can also be filed.  For example, a Motion to Suppress alleges that evidence should not be admitted (or heard by the jury), because the defendant’s rights were violated in the process of getting that evidence.

 

  1. Trial.  A defendant is presumed innocent, so the purpose of the trial is for the prosecution to present the evidence that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.  Each crime has specific elements that the prosecution must prove.  The trial must occur within a certain time period of the Arraignment.

 

  1. Appeals.  If the verdict is guilty, the defendant may have the right to appeal.  The appeal must be filed within a certain time period, so a defendant should consult with his or her attorney immediately if an appeal is desired.

 

  1. Sentencing.  If the verdict is guilty and an appeal is not sought, the next step is sentencing, where the judge imposes the punishment, which is typically involves fines, counseling, incarceration in jail or prison.