From an Arrest through Trial: the Stages of a Criminal Case

Although the process will vary for a juvenile offense or certain major felony offenses or federal crimes, the typical criminal case process is as follows:

An individual is arrested and taking into custody for the commission of a crime.

Custody / Bail
The defendant is held in custody until bail is set. The defendant must then pay bail in order to be released. In some cases, a defendant may be released on his or her own recognizance, where bail is not required.

The arraignment is the defendant's first court appearance. At this time, the judge will read the charges the defendant faces. The defendant also enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or no contest at this time.

Plea Bargain
The defendant may agree to a plea bargain, which the prosecuting attorney may offer. A plea bargain typically occurs when the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser offense, thus avoiding a trial.

Preliminary Hearing
A preliminary hearing is not always held in criminal cases, and will depend upon your particular case and the state in which these proceedings are taking place. A preliminary hearing is, in essence, a trial before the trial, wherein the judge will review the case and witnesses in order to determine whether the case should go to trial.

Pre-Trial Motions
Pre-trial motions are arguments which an attorney may file regarding the case, such as motions to suppress evidence or witness testimony, or possibly drop the case as a whole.

The trial is most often overseen by a judge, with the verdict determined by a jury. During the trial, both the defense and prosecution will be able to make opening statements, examine and cross-examine witnesses and present closing arguments in an effort to sway the jury's decision.

If a jury finds a defendant guilty, the judge will determine sentencing.

If a defendant is found guilty, he/she and his/her attorney can file an appeal in an effort to have the decision overturned or the sentence altered.

After a conviction, and after an individual has served his or her entire sentence, an expungement may be pursued in order to clear his or her criminal record.

It is important to seek legal counsel as early in the face of criminal proceedings as possible. Even if you have not been arrested or formally charged, you may find it helpful to involve an attorney who can protect your legal rights and help you avoid criminal charges in the first place. Our directory includes lawyers who handle all kinds of criminal cases, from drug possession or shoplifting all the way to weapon charges and murder.

To find a criminal defense attorney in your area, click here.