Though every situation is unique, and the process does not always follow a precise order or timeline, your journey through the criminal justice system will probably be very similar to the following:
Upon your arrest, you will be taken to the police station and “booked.” Booking is the process of identifying you and recording the fact of your arrest. You will be photographed and fingerprinted, and an officer will ask you a series of “pedigree” questions, including questions about where you
live, where you work, and your immigration status. It is important not to discuss the facts of your case or argue about your arrest. If you are not a legal immigrant, you should not answer any questions about your immigration status.
In addition to booking you, the police may use their access to you to undertake further investigation. Depending on the reason for your arrest and the nature of the alleged crime, they may:
- Place you in a line-up;
- Take hand-writing samples or make recordings of your voice;
- Collect hair, saliva, nail clippings, or blood for testing;
- In drunk driving cases, ask you to submit to a blood-draw or breath test;
- Swab your cheek for DNA collection;
- Seek consent to search your property; or
- Interrogate you.
Initial Court Appearance (“Arraignment”)
Shortly after you are arrested and booked, you will be taken to court for your first appearance before a judge or other judicial officer (with, perhaps, a stop along the way for you to be interviewed by a bail agency). At this initial appearance, the judge will review the charges against you to determine whether there is probable cause to hold you.
At this time, you have a right to:
- Notice and explanation of the charges against you;
- A copy of the charges;
- Notice of your legal rights, especially your right to remain silent and your right to counsel;
- Representation by a criminal defense attorney you’ve hired;
- Appointment of an attorney if you cannot afford one (usually the public defender);
- A bail determination; and
- In felony cases, the setting of a preliminary hearing date
If you are charged with a misdemeanor, you will enter a plea. If you plead “guilty,” the judge will impose a sentence or set a date for a sentencing hearing. If you plead “not guilty,” the judge will determine a bail amount and set a trial date.
In a felony case, you will enter a plea, and the judge will hear arguments on bail, and will either set bail or return you to jail to await trial. The judge also will set a date for a preliminary hearing.
Preliminary Hearing (Felony cases)
The next stop on your journey through the criminal justice system is the preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing the judge will determine whether there is probable cause to believe that (1) a crime was committed; and (2) you committed that crime. “Probable cause” is a very low standard meaning only that a reasonable person would entertain a strong suspicion that a crime was committed and that you were the one responsible.
If the judge finds that there was no probable cause, the case will be dismissed. If the judge finds that there is probable cause, he or she will make an order holding you to answer (at trial) for any charges proven during the hearing, and will direct the prosecutor to file a felony information with those charges.
Following the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor and your defense attorney will engage in a process referred to as “discovery.” Discovery usually involves:
- The prosecution will make an initial, voluntary disclosure of its evidence against you, as well as
exculpatory evidence (evidence that is favorable to you on the issues of guilt or punishment).
- Your lawyer will make an informal request or demand for additional evidence, usually by means
of a letter to the prosecutor.
- Your lawyer will file a motion (a formal written request), asking the court to order the prosecution
to turn over any outstanding evidence.
- Your lawyer may provide evidence or information required by law to be produced—typically information that the lawyer knows will be introduced by the defense at trial.
During this discovery process, the court will set multiple status hearings with the attorneys to monitor the progress of the case.
Also during this period before trial (often before trial dates are even set), your defense attorney will identify the legal issues that could be addressed by motions (formal written requests to the court). For example, if the evidence against you was obtained in violation of your constitutional rights (like an illegal search or seizure), your defense attorney may be able to have that evidence “suppressed” or thrown out.
Trial will begin with jury selection. Following jury selection, the lawyers will give opening statements. The prosecution then will present its evidence against you, through the testimony of witnesses. Your defense lawyer will challenge the witnesses’ veracity and credibility through cross-examination.
At the close of the prosecution’s case, it will be your lawyer’s turn to present your defense. The evidence phase of the trial will conclude with closing arguments by the attorneys. The case will then go to the jury for deliberations and a verdict.
If the jury finds you “not guilty,” then the case is over and you are released from the criminal justice system to return to your life. If, however, you are found guilty, then a separate hearing will be scheduled, at which time you will be sentenced.