Written by Avvo Staff

What happens during the criminal trial process?

The criminal defense process can be a harrowing experience, especially if your liberty is at stake. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for the ordeal.

Even if you can't afford a lawyer, the US Constitution may guarantee you a public defender for certain offenses. Learn what to expect through each stage of the criminal trial process, from the initial arrest to the final sentence.


An arrest typically initiates criminal proceedings. Assuming the police have probable cause—or good reason—to arrest you, officers usually don't need a warrant to do so. However, except in emergency situations, the police will generally need a warrant to arrest you in your home.

Your arrest warrant, if law enforcement authorities receiveone, is a document signed by a judge that allows officials to arrest you. The warrant will usually detail the crime you are accused of committing and specify also specify the bail you must post to be released. The bail the judge sets will depend on your crime's severity and your "flight risk," the likelihood you'll leave town.

The arrest and booking process can take several hours. Once arrested, you have the right to the following:

  • Remain silent.
  • Be informed that what you say can be used against you in court.
  • Consult an attorney and have an attorney with you during interrogations.
  • Make a phone call or calls within a certain time after arrest, which varies by state.
  • Have a lawyer appointed for free for some offenses if you can't afford one.


When you're arrested, the state can hold you in custody only for a reasonable amount of time before formally charging you of a crime. In most states, that window is limited to 72 hours.

The police will supply the county attorney's office with their arrest reports. From those reports, a prosecutor will decide what crimes to charge you with, if any. The prosecutor will file a complaint, the formal charging document.

Initial hearing and arraignment

The next phase of criminal court proceedings is known as an initial hearing, or initial appearance, which also typically includes an arraignment. The initial appearance usually happens within 48 hours after arrest and is very brief. During this initial hearing, the judge will explain the following to you:

  • The charges you're facing.
  • Your constitutional rights.
  • Your entitlement to a court-appointed lawyer, if you can't afford a private attorney.
  • Your bail, if not already set.
  • The next step in the criminal trial process, such as setting dates for the preliminary hearing.

At this point, some states also handle the arraignment, a process when the accused enters a plea to the charges as explained by the judge.

Usually, you can enter any of the following pleas:

  • Not guilty. You assert that you didn't commit the crime as charged. A not-guilty plea can also be a strategic decision to get a better plea bargain or force the case to trial if the state has shoddy evidence.

  • Guilty.You admit to the crime, and the judge immediately enters a conviction.

  • Nolo contendere (no contest).You're not admitting guilt, but you're not contesting the charge. This plea is often wise for defendants who are also facing civil lawsuits where a prior admission of guilt may hurt them.

Preliminary hearing

Some states require a preliminary hearing within a few weeks of the arraignment. Others handle the process on paper. During the hearing, the state must show it has enough evidence to support the charge. If the state meets its burden of proof, the judge sets a trial date.

Discovery and pretrial

The next step of the criminal court process isdiscovery, the stage in which the state and the defense exchange evidence and other information. During this time, your attorney and the prosecutor may plea bargain. You offer to plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges or punishment.

In the pretrial phase, your attorney or the prosecutor may file any of several pretrial motions. For example, you might file a motion to suppress a piece of evidence against you because it was the result of an illegal search.


If your attorney and the prosecutor can't reach a disposition, or settlement, of your case outside of court, your case will go to trial. Keep in mind that the cost of a trial can begreat.

While attorney fees range depending on your location and your lawyer's skill set. Expect to pay as much as $2,500 for a misdemeanor case and $3,500 for a felony without a trial. If your case goes to trial, attorneys may charge around $1,500 for every day of the trial. Criminal trials usually last a few days, but some can last up to several weeks.

Typical stages of a trial include:

1. Voir dire. Also known as jury selection, the attorneys on both sides choose the jurors.

2. Opening statements. Both sides are invited topresent an outline of their arguments.

3. Presentation of evidence and witnesses. The state will first present its case, and the defense cancross-examine the state's witnesses before putting forth its own.

4. Closing arguments. Both sides summarize the evidence presented and points made.

5. Jury instructions and deliberation. At the end of closing arguments, the judge will give the jury instructions on the law and how to reach a verdict. The jury reviews the evidence during deliberations.

6. Verdict. Assuming the jurors could reach a decision, the jury will return a verdict of not guilty or guilty. A not-guilty verdict means that you are acquitted of the crime and are free to go. A guilty verdict moves the proceedings into the sentencing phase.

7. Sentencing. The judge can sentence you at the trial or set sentencing for another date.


You can only appeal a conviction if you pleaded not guilty. For this reason, consulting with an attorney about taking a plea bargain is a good idea, as a guilty plea may permanently affect your record and your employment prospects.

If you entered a not-guilty plea and lost at trial, you have the right to appeal your case. A higher court will review the decision and decide if the lower court erred. You have 30 days to appeal a misdemeanor conviction and 60 days to appeal a felony.

Being charged with a crime can be an overwhelming experience without proper legal guidance. A criminal defense attorney will help ensure that you receive the best possible outcome based on the evidence presentedagainst you.

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