Criminal Charges: How Are Crimes Prosecuted

How Are Criminal Charges Filed?

In most cases, a criminal case begins when the police respond to a citizen's complaint that a crime has been committed. Sometimes, the police observe suspicious activity. Once the police are called or see something suspicious, the police investigate, take statements from witnesses, and prepare a report on their findings. At times, the police will arrest suspects during the course of their investigation. At other times, the police will complete their investigate, prepare a report summarizing their findings and submit it to the prosecutor's office for evaluation, so that a prosecutor will decide whether charges should be filed against any suspects named in the police report.

After being stopped or investigated by the police, a person may be ticketed for a non-criminal offense such as a civil infraction, may be cited or arrested for a misdemeanor criminal offense, or may be arrested for a felony, a more serious type of criminal offense. Although most jurisdictions classify charges using terms like infraction, misdemeanor and felony, some states use different terminology to describe those classes of offenses.

The exact procedure for how charges are filed varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions give the police considerable discretion to charge defendants with specific crimes, while others place more power with the prosecutor's office. While it is common to speak in terms of being "charged by the police," in many states that is not entirely accurate. The exact procedure for how charges are filed varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and, although the police may arrest a person and may recommend a specific charge, in many jurisdictions criminal charges are chosen solely by the prosecutor's office. For more serious offenses, states may require that a defendant be indicted by a grand jury or the right to have their charge reviewed at a probable cause hearing.

How Will My State Handle A Criminal Investigation or Prosecution?

The exact manner in which criminal cases are handled varies from state to state, and from county to county. Typical procedures include the following court proceedings:

  • Arraignment - A hearing at which the defendant is formally charged with a crime, and is offered an opportunity to enter a plea to the charges.

  • Bail Hearing - A hearing to set bond or bail for the case which, if posted, may allow the defendant to be released pending trial or the final resolution of the prosecution.

  • Preliminary Examination - For defendants charged with felony offenses and not indicted by other means under the laws of their state, such as through grand jury proceedings, a hearing to review if there is probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the defendant was the person who committed the crime.

  • Pretrial - A hearing at which the court reviews the status of the case and sets a schedule for pretrial proceedings and the eventual trial of the defendant's case.

  • Plea Hearing - A hearing that may be scheduled if a defendant intends to enter a guilty plea, perhaps at the conclusion of plea negotiations.

  • Trial -The trial of a criminal case, whether by judge (bench trial) or jury (jury trial).

  • Sentencing - A hearing at which the defendant is sentenced, following a guilty plea or conviction at trial.

The following articles provide an outline of the criminal justice system, from the time the police first stop or question a suspect through conviction and sentence. However, the laws of your state may differ from those described herein.

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What Happens In Juvenile Criminal Cases?

Juvenile court cases involve charges against minors who are not yet old enough to be charged as adults. The principal goal of a juvenile court prosecution is to try to help the minor become a law-abiding adult, as opposed to taking the more punitive stance of the adult criminal system, but minors may nonetheless face serious consequences for their offenses including probation and incarceration. In most states it is possible to seal juvenile records after a minor reaches adulthood, with some states automatically sealing the records once certain criteria are met, but laws pertaining to juvenile records, when they may be sealed and when they will remain public vary significantly by state.

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What Happens In Drunk and Impaired Driving Cases

Drunk and Impaired Driving Cases involve the prosecution of defendants who are alleged to have been operating a motor vehicle while impaired in their ability to safely operate the vehicle due to the consumption of alcohol, drugs or other intoxicants.

The issues that arise in drunk and impaired driving cases can be complicated, involving a range of issues from the propriety of the traffic stop, to the manner in which roadside sobriety tests are conducted, to the conduct and accuracy of drug and alcohol tests. When charged with impaired driving is often best to seek the assistance of an attorney who specializes in drunk and impaired driving cases, in order to evaluate any defenses that you may have, and to minimize the potential consequences to your driver's license and your freedom.

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What Constitutional Rights Apply In Criminal Cases?

State and Federal constitutions provide important protections to the public, to people suspected of crimes, and to people who are being prosecuted for crimes. Under the federal constitution, most protections come from:

  • The Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and which creates a right to indictment by grand jury within the federal court system;

  • The Fifth Amendment, which provides guarantees of Due Process, protects defendants against self-incrimination and prohibits double jeopardy;

  • The Sixth Amendment, which provides a right to jury trial in criminal cases, the right to compel witnesses to appear and testify for the defense, and the right to legal representation;

  • The Eighth Amendment, which provides the right to a speedy trial, the right to be informed of charges, the right to be tried in a reasonable jurisdiction, and which forbids excessive bail in federal prosecutions.

For state court prosecutions, additional constitutional protections may be available under the constitution of the state in which the prosecution is proceeding.

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What Rights Do Crime Victims Have?

Increasingly, the rights of crime victims are being recognized and protected by the states. Victims often have the right to be informed of all court proceedings, and to speak at a defendant's sentencing. Although the specific rights that are granted to crime victims may vary depending upon the laws of the state in which the prosecution is proceeding, every state now recognizes the legal rights of victims.

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Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Feb 22, 2017.