What Happens in Court: Criminal Case Procedures

Here's a basic introduction to the criminal court process following an arrest.

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If you've been arrested for a crime, you may be wondering what happens once the court process starts. This article addresses the basic steps that will take place.

First Court Appearance: Arraignment

The first court date in a criminal case is known as the "arraignment." At this stage, the court may set bail, appoint an attorney if necessary, and enter a plea. Entering a plea means that the court will ask the defendant whether his or her plea is "not guilty", "guilty" or "no contest", or "not guilty by reason of insanity”. Most lawyers typically enter a "not guilty" plea at the arraignment.

Misdemeanor Cases

Pre-Trial Conference and Plea Bargaining

After a not guilty plea the court will set future court dates. If the case is a misdemeanor, the second court date will be a "pre-trial conference." At this conference, which is held in court, the defense lawyer and the prosecutor, with the assistance of the court, will attempt to settle the case.

Many people are familiar with the term "plea bargaining", meaning negotiating the nature of the charges and/or the extent of punishment. Plea bargaining takes place at this stage. It is common for defense lawyers to contact district attorneys before the pre-trial conference in an attempt to settle the case before the actual pre-trial date.

(To learn more, see our article on How Plea Bargains Work).

Trial

If the case does not settle, then the court will set a date for jury or court trial. At trial, the prosecutor (also known as D.A., or deputy D.A.) must prove the case against the defendant "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is known as the "standard of proof" in a criminal case. The verdict must be unanimous. If the jurors do not agree on the verdict, then there is a "hung jury". If this happens, the defendant may be re-tried.

Felony Cases

Preliminary Examination

If the case is a felony, after the arraignment and if the case does not settle, the court will set a date for a "preliminary examination."  A "preliminary examination" is a judicial proceeding where the court, after hearing evidence introduced by the district attorney (typically testimony by police officers), determines whether or not there is "probable cause" (sufficient cause) to believe that the defendant (the person accused of committing the crime) has committed a crime.

If the court finds that there is sufficient evidence, then the defendant will be "held over" for trial (ordered to proceed with the case). A finding of "probable cause" does not mean that the defendant is guilty; it just means that there is cause to proceed with the case.

If the court finds that there is insufficient evidence to proceed against the defendant, and this finding is based on "fact findings", then the court may dismiss the case. If the court made no findings, but dismisses the case on legal grounds, the prosecution may re-file a new complaint or seek a grand jury indictment.

After preliminary examination, the district attorney will file an accusatory document known as an "Information". The defendant will be re-arraigned on the "Information" (official complaint), and a date is set for trial.

(For more in-depth information, see our Guide to a Criminal Case).

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