The Criminal Process

The Arraignment

The arraignment is the first time the defendant appears in court.At the arraignment, the judge tells the defendant:

  • What the charges are,
  • What his or her constitutional rights are, and
  • That if he or she does not have enough money to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer free of charge.

The defendant may then respond to the charges by entering a plea. Common pleas include guilty, not guilty, or no contest (also known as “nolo contendere”).

  • Not Guilty means the defendant says he or she did not commit the crime. Sometimes, defendants enter a plea of not guilty as a strategic decision during plea bargaining or because they want to go to trial and force the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Guilty means the defendant admits he or she committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record.
  • No Contest means the defendant does not contest (disagree with) the charge. This plea has the same effect as a guilty plea, except the conviction generally cannot be used against the defendant in a civil lawsuit.

If the defendant is in custody at the time of arraignment, after the defendant enters a plea (responds to the charges), the judge will:

  • Release the defendant on his or her “own recognizance” (which means the defendant promises to return to court on a specified date), OR
  • Set bail and send the defendant back to the jail until the bail is posted, OR
  • Refuse to set bail and send the defendant back to jail.

“Bail” is money or property that a defendant puts up as a promise to return for future court dates. When setting the amount of bail, the judge takes into account the seriousness of the crime, whether the defendant is a risk to the community, and whether he or she is a “flight risk” and likely to run away.

After the Arraignment

In misdemeanor cases, if the defendant enters a not guilty plea, after the arraignment and before the trial:

The prosecution and the defense exchange information. This is called “discovery.” Defendants may be limited in what information they are able to see, but their lawyers usually are not. This is because lawyers are required by law to protect the identity of witnesses while still preparing a defense so that the witnesses are not put in jeopardy. This is why it is so important that a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or felony be represented by a lawyer.
Either side can file pretrial motions, including motions to set aside (cancel) the complaint, to dismiss the case, or to prevent evidence from being used at trial.
The defendant can change his or her plea to guilty or no contest.
The judge and lawyers from both sides may talk about how the case can be resolved without going to trial.

In felony cases, after the arraignment, if the case does not settle or get dismissed the judge holds a preliminary hearing. At this hearing, the judge will decide if there is enough evidence that the defendant committed the crime to make the defendant have to appear for a trial. If the judge decides that there is enough evidence, the prosecutor will file a document called “the Information.” Then, the defendant will be arraigned, a second time, on the Information. At that time, the defendant will enter a plea and proceed to trial. Before the trial:
The prosecution and the defense exchange information. This is called “discovery.” Defendants may be limited in what information they are able to see, but their lawyers usually are not. This is because lawyers are required by law to protect the identity of witnesses while still preparing a defense so that the witnesses are not put in jeopardy. This is why it is so important that a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or felony be represented by a lawyer.
Either side can file pretrial motions, including motions to set aside (cancel) the complaint, to dismiss the case, or to prevent evidence from being used at trial.
The defendant can change his or her plea to guilty or no contest.
The judge and lawyers from both sides may talk about how the case can be resolved without going to trial.

Trial

Defendants in criminal cases (other than infractions) have the right to have a jury of their peers decide their guilt or innocence. Therefore, before trial, defendants need to decide whether to have a jury trial (where the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not) or a court trial (where the judge decides). Usually, defendants choose to have a jury trial because they want a jury of their peers to hear the evidence and decide their guilt. But sometimes there may be circumstances where a defense attorney will recommend a court trial without a jury.

Everyone accused of a crime is legally presumed to be innocent until they are convicted, either by being proved guilty at a trial or by pleading guilty before trial. This means that it is the prosecutor who has to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty and must provide proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant has the right to remain silent and that silence cannot be used against him or her.

What Happens at Trial

Before the trial starts, the lawyers choose a jury. The process for choosing a jury is called “voir dire.” During this process the attorneys on both sides ask questions of the potential jurors to make sure the jurors will be fair and impartial.
Before the lawyers present evidence and witnesses, both sides have the right to give an opening statement about the case.
During the trial, lawyers present evidence through witnesses who testify about what they saw or know.
After all the evidence is presented, the lawyers give their closing arguments.
Finally, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. The jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Verdict

If the jury finds the defendant not guilty, it is called an “acquittal” and the defendant will be released. The defendant can never be tried again for the same crime. This is called “double jeopardy.” A finding of not guilty is not the same as a finding of innocence. It simply means that the jury was not convinced that the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The arrest will still show on the defendant’s record, along with the acquittal. If a defendant was wrongfully arrested and charged, and he or she wants to get the arrest removed from her or his record, a hearing to determine the factual innocence of the defendant must be held in front of a judge. It is often much harder to prove factual innocence, than to raise a reasonable doubt about guilt.
If the defendant is found guilty, the defendant will be sentenced.