Although there is often variation regarding rules and procedures from one court to the next, criminal cases generally follow the same processes. In all cases, a defendants’ constitutional rights must be honored. All defendants have a right to due process of law with reasonable notice of charges and proceedings and a fair hearing.
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The Stages of Criminal Cases
Criminal cases develop in stages that begin with an arrest and end either before, during, or after a trial. If a defendant accepts a plea bargain from the prosecution, the criminal case will end. A plea bargain offers a defendant a dismissal of charges or a more lenient sentence in exchange for a guilty plea before a trial begins. Criminal cases progress in stages:
When a suspect is arrested by police, he/she may remain in jail or post bail. During the bail hearing, the judge determines whether the defendant is able to post bail and what the bail amount will be. If a suspect is granted bail, he/she may pay the bail amount in exchange for his/her release.
A suspect’s first court appearance will be at the arraignment. During this process, the judge will read the charges against the defendant and the defendant can plead “not guilty,” “guilty,” or “no contest” to the charges. After reviewing the defendant’s bail, the judge will establish dates for future proceedings.
Preliminary Hearings or Grand Jury Proceedings
Preliminary hearings are held before a judge or magistrate in felony cases. At this hearing, the prosecution must show that it has sufficient evidence to support the charges against the defendant. In federal cases, charges must be brought by indictment. Preliminary hearings and grand jury proceedings are held to establish probable cause. If no probable cause is found, the defendant will not have to stand trial.
If there is no plea agreement, the case proceeds to trial. During the trial, the prosecution will introduce evidence and call witnesses to testify. The criminal defense lawyer will have an opportunity to challenge the evidence and cross-examine prosecution witnesses. After closing arguments, the jury will return a verdict.
If the defendant is found guilty, the court will impose a sentence based on the severity of charges, the defendant’s criminal history, and state laws that govern penalties.