What are the typical steps in a criminal proceeding?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Guilt or innocence of a petty crime, for minor offenses, is usually resolved in a summary proceeding. Your signature on the ticket charging a petty offense acknowledges receipt of it and it contains your promise to pay the fine or appear in court. On the face of the ticket will be your name (as the defendant), the date and time of the offense, the name of the law enforcement officer who issued the ticket, the location and telephone number of the court, and the date for you to appear in court. With many petty crimes, you may simply call the court to find out how much the fine is and then you can plead guilty and send in payment for the fine. If you wish to plead not guilty and have a hearing on the matter, you must show up at the assigned hearing. You may have an attorney present with you at the hearing or defend yourself (appear “in propria persona” [in pro per] and represent yourself). Usually the “trial” of the matter is heard at this first hearing and the sentence rendered after the submission of the evidence.

Misdemeanors and felony criminal proceedings are more complex. As with a petty crime proceeding, you may have an attorney appear with you throughout the proceeding, or waive your right to counsel and represent yourself. For most felony proceedings, the following steps typically occur (note: these steps do not apply to juvenile proceedings):

A crime is committed, it is reported, an investigation conducted and an arrest made (these may all occur in rapid sequence if the offense is committed in the presence of a law enforcement officer)

Booking – an administrative procedure which records the defendant’s name, the crime charged, and other relevant information about the defendant (telephone number and address, photograph, fingerprints, etc.)

Arraignment – when the defendant appears in court and enters a plea (guilty or not guilty, or sometimes “nolo contendere” [no contest]). The defendant is presented with a written accusation dealing the facts of the crime and his/her involvement in the crime. The written accusation may be presented by a grand jury, a prosecutor or a police officer. If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, a date for trial is set.

Bail or Detention – bail is either set or the defendant is required to be “detained” (kept in jail until the trial). Bail could range from being “released on your own recognizance” (in other words, you are on your honor to appear at the next hearing), to many thousands of dollars. When a higher amount of bail is set, a bail bondsman is often called to provide the bail payment in exchange for a fee and a lien against property (as collateral) of the defendant. If bail is posted, the defendant is released but must show up at the next hearing (or bail will be forfeited).

Preliminary Hearing – A hearing in which a judge determines whether the defendant should be held for trial. At the “prelim,” the prosecution has the burden of providing sufficient evidence to the judge that a crime has occurred and that the defendant committed the crime.

Trial – opening statements, examination of witnesses and presentation of evidence, closing statements, charging the jury (giving the jury its instructions), verdict rendered by the jury after due deliberation, and entering of the verdict (either guilty, guilty of a lesser included or related offense, or not guilty). After a verdict is issued, the defendant may try a post trial motion, such as a motion for a new trial.

Sentencing – when a defendant has been found guilty by trial or has plead guilty, a hearing is set to determine the imposition of the sentence. Sentencing reports, which set forth mitigating and compounding factors (prior payment of restitution may be a mitigating factor, other convictions of crimes may be a compounding factor) are often submitted to the judge and then the judge pronounces judgment at a sentencing hearing (in some jurisdictions juries or sentencing councils render the sentence).

Fine, Probation, Jail – the defendant may be ordered to pay a fine, be released but subject to specific terms of probation, or sent directly to jail. If a person violates the terms of his/her probation, s/he may have his/her probation revoked, and be sent to jail.

Appeal – after conviction of a crime, the defendant has appellate proceeding which may be available to determine whether all substantive and procedural law issues were properly conducted at the trial.

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