Criminal Law: Procedure and Process

Our legal system is divided into two types of law: civil and criminal. In a civil case, a person brings a lawsuit against someone else for some perceived wrong, usually for monetary damages. In criminal cases, the state brings the action -- called a prosecution -- against a person believed to have violated a criminal law. The punishment in a criminal case can be as minor as a small fine, or as serious as prison time or even death. In both civil and criminal courts, the person accused of wrongdoing is called the "defendant."

If you're being accused of a crime, there is a lot at stake. You'll need a good criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights because he or she knows the ins and outs of how the system works. Defense attorneys can explain the charges filed against you, develop strong defense strategies against the accusations, negotiate plea bargains with the prosecution, and file necessary motions with the court. Being charged under our criminal laws is a serious issue and having a dedicated defense attorney can make a huge difference in the outcome.

Felonies and Misdemeanors

Each state decides what its criminal laws look like (as long as they are constitutional), but most crimes are categorized as felonies, misdemeanors, or infractions. A felony is the most serious type of crime and is punishable by death (in some states) or by imprisonment for more than a year. A misdemeanor is a less serious offense for which the punishment is less than a year in prison, and an infraction is a minor violation that usually results in a citation or fine rather than jail time.

What Do You Have to Prove in Criminal Law?

Due to the potential loss of liberty, criminal prosecutions carry a higher burden of proof than civil cases. The accused person is presumed innocent and prosecutors must prove that he or she committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, to find a person guilty of a crime, the jury must have no reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the criminal offense. This is the highest burden of proof in American law.

In criminal law, defendants are generally not required to prove anything at trial. Criminal defense lawyers represent criminal defendants by carefully reviewing evidence, poking holes in the prosecution's case, identifying any constitutional problems, negotiating with prosecutors, and arguing for their clients at hearings and trials.

What Happens After You Are Charged with a Crime?

Criminal procedure varies depending on the jurisdiction -- the authority to administer justice, such as federal or state -- in which the person is charged. A criminal case is typically initiated either by a prosecutor filing a criminal complaint or through a grand jury indictment. After the charges are filed, cases tend to proceed in a similar manner. Generally speaking, people can expect their cases to proceed as follows:

  • Charges filed or grand jury indicts
  • Defendant is arrested or a summons to appear is issued
  • Initial appearance and bond determination
  • Plea bargaining process between prosecutor and defense attorney
  • Motions filed, hearings held
  • Jury or bench trial
  • Verdict handed down
  • Sentencing if defendant is found guilty or if they plead guilty
  • Post-conviction appeals

If the defendant is convicted, he or she is sentenced according to sentencing guidelines and the discretion of the judge. The sentence may include prison time, fines, probation, treatment, or some other type of punishment or program.

You Have Rights!

There are many constitutional protections for someone accused of committing a crime. Even before charges are filed, people have constitutional rights that law enforcement officers must honor, including 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Someone who's been arrested has the right to speak to an attorney if they request one, to remain silent in the face of police interrogation, to have an attorney present at all significant stages of the criminal proceeding, and in most cases to have an attorney appointed to represent them if they can't afford one.

Criminal defendants also have the right to due process, which means the government must follow certain rules and allow defendants to defend themselves before it can take away their liberty, property, etc. This encompasses the right to be informed of the nature of the charges against them, the right to confront or cross-examine witnesses who testify against them, and the right to a trial by jury or by the judge.

Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help

Whether someone asks for an attorney to be appointed to them or they hire a private lawyer, defense attorneys are meant to guide defendants through the criminal law proceedings and protect their rights in and out of court. Attorneys request copies of all of the evidence against their clients from the prosecutor or the police, and they review that evidence to see if their client's rights were violated. If any of these rights were violated, attorneys may file motions seeking to suppress evidence from the case.

A criminal defense attorney will also negotiate with the prosecutor to try to get a more favorable plea offer (potentially with dropped or reduced charges) for their client. If a plea is not reached, then the attorney will prepare for trial by gathering evidence, conducting depositions, filing motions with the court, and developing an overall strategy.

Facing Criminal Charges? Receive a Free Case Review from a Criminal Defense Attorney

Being charged for a crime is an emotional, pressure-filled experience. Constitutional protections help to prevent the government from overstepping its bounds within criminal law. But these criminal law rights are meaningless if there is no one there to enforce them for you. Get a free case review from a qualified criminal defense lawyer who can help you through a plea bargain, argue for a dismissal, or prepare the best defense at trial.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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