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Stages of a Criminal Case

Posted by attorney Jose Masso

A criminal case usually proceeds as follows:

1. Initial appearance and arraignment

A defendant’s first court appearance is called an arraignment. At this time an accused usually enters a plea of not guilty and the court sets a trial date.

2. Detention/bail hearing

At this appearance, the court determines whether a defendant should be released while the case is ongoing and if the defendant must post any bail to be released. Bail and release is sometimes determined at the same time as an arraignment.

3. Discovery and investigation

During this stage, the prosecution and defense must exchange all materials in their possession relative to the case. Police and defense investigators also obtain evidence as well as locate and interview witnesses in preparation of trial.

4. Motions

At any time during a criminal case the prosecution or defense may make motions. These motions are the parties’ way of requesting the court take a certain action or make a particular ruling. Most defense motions concern the admissibility of evidence at trial, especially motions to prevent illegally obtained evidence from being used at trial.

5. Plea negotiations and change of plea

Plea negotiations can occur at any time during a criminal case.

6. Trial

The trial portion of the case is where the prosecution and defense present witness testimony and other evidence to the fact finder, which can either be a judge or a jury. The fact finder determines whether a defendant is guilty of the crime charged. It is the prosecution’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the fact finder. If the prosecution does not meet its burden, the fact finder must find the defendant not guilty.

7. Sentencing

If a defendant is found guilty at trial, the judge, during the sentencing phase, must impose a punishment. Both the prosecution and defense will offer the judge recommendations regarding what sort of sentence should be imposed, such as the length of a prison term.

8. Appeals and other post-conviction relief

Appeals are usually made after trial and/or sentencing. The reason for an appeal is to correct any legal error made by the trial judge during the case. There is usually no ground to appeal a case because a defendant does not like the outcome.

Note that the above is generally how a criminal prosecution proceeds in court. The actual process may vary from state to state, and sometimes varies within a single state, county, or city. If you are charged with a crime, contact a lawyer immediatly to help you navigate the criminal process and protect your liberty interests.

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