Our criminal justice system is complex, both conceptually and procedurally. To ensure the fairness of the proceedings, each court system has its own rules of criminal procedure that govern the actions of all players: police, defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges and juries.
The US Constitution requires that criminal defendants be accorded due process of law in all proceedings against them. Broadly, this means that throughout the criminal justice process the rules of criminal procedure must be observed with all constitutional protections in place. Due process requires such things as reasonable notice of proceedings and fair hearings when a person is facing substantial negative consequences, such as incarceration.
Stages of a Criminal Case
Investigation: During the investigation of a crime, the police review the facts, interview witnesses and gather evidence against suspect(s). Once the police have enough evidence, they can ask a judge to sign an arrest warrant for a suspect.
Arrest and Bail: After being arrested, a suspect will go before the judge, who will either set bail or decline to set any bail so that the suspect must remain in jail until the trial. Bail is an amount of money that the suspect must post so that he or she can get out of jail. The amount of bail depends on a number of factors including the severity of the crime the suspect is accused of, the strength of the prosecution's case, whether the accused has a criminal history and whether the suspect is a flight risk. If the suspect shows up for future court dates, the bail money is returned. If, however, the suspect doesn't show up or flees, the court will keep the money and issue an arrest warrant.
Arraignment: The accused first appears before the judge at an arraignment. At this proceeding, the judge informs the accused of the criminal charges against him or her, asks the accused whether he or she has an attorney or wants a court-appointed attorney, asks how the accused will plead to the charges, determines whether to modify the initial amount of bail and sets a schedule for future court dates.
Preliminary Hearing: In felony cases, a judge or magistrate will hold a preliminary hearing during which the prosecution must show that there is enough evidence supporting the charges against the defendant so that the case can proceed to the next stage. It is an adversarial proceeding and the defendant's attorney has the right to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses. It is also sometimes called a "preliminary examination" or "probable cause hearing."
Plea Bargaining: Sometimes a criminal defendant and the prosecution can negotiate an agreement that resolves the criminal matter. Usually, the prosecutor agrees to reduce a charge, drop some of multiple charges or recommend a more lenient sentence in exchange for the defendant's guilty plea, often to a lesser offense. A seasoned criminal defense attorney can be a real advantage to a criminal defendant throughout the plea-bargaining process.
Trial and Sentencing: At trial, the prosecutor and defense attorney will give opening and closing statements, introduce evidence and question witnesses. If a defendant is found guilty, the court will impose a sentence, which may include incarceration, fines, court costs, restitution and probation. For minor crimes, the sentence may be issued right away. For more serious crimes, the prosecution and defense will submit evidence and arguments about what the appropriate sentence should be. In some states, a judge will decide the sentence. In other states, sentencing is a completely separate from the trial, with a different jury determining the sentence. During this separate sentencing phase, the prosecution will present aggravating factors to argue for a harsher sentence and the defense will present mitigating factors in favor of a lesser sentence. Also, before the sentence is issued, the defendant has the right to allocution, which is when the defendant can address the judge directly. It may be a chance for the defendant to apologize, show remorse or explain his or her actions.