Course: Introduction / Procedural Law
Criminal proceedings refers to the legal process from investigation to trial and sentencing when an individual is charged with a crime.
Criminal proceedings are initiated when a crime is reported or discovered. Law enforcement officers, such as the police, are typically responsible for investigating the crime. They collect evidence, interview witnesses, and, if necessary, arrest a suspect. The goal of this investigation stage is to gather enough evidence to establish probable cause, the legal standard indicating that a crime has occurred and that the suspect was involved.
Arrest and Charges
If the law enforcement officer believes there is sufficient evidence, they can arrest the suspect. Once a suspect is arrested, they are typically brought to a police station for booking—a process where the suspect’s information is recorded, and they are held in custody.
Next, the suspect is brought before a judge for a proceeding known as an arraignment. During this proceeding, the judge reads the charges against the suspect, who is now referred to as the defendant. The defendant is then given the opportunity to enter a plea—typically guilty, not guilty, or no contest. This marks the formal beginning of the criminal proceedings. As such, it is a procedurally important milestone for the justice system; many procedural protections come into play once formal proceedings have begun.
Following the arraignment, the pre-trial stage begins. During this time, the prosecution and the defense gather evidence, interview witnesses, and prepare their cases. This stage may also involve various court appearances, during which issues like bail and discovery—the process through which both sides share evidence—are addressed.
One significant aspect of the pre-trial stage is plea bargaining. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge or to one of several charges in exchange for a more lenient sentence or the dismissal of other charges. Plea bargaining can help avoid a lengthy trial when the evidence against the defendant is strong.
If a plea bargain isn’t reached or if the defendant pleads not guilty and insists on a trial, the case proceeds to the trial stage. At the trial, the prosecution and defense present their evidence and arguments to a judge or a jury. The prosecution presents first, followed by the defense. Both sides may call witnesses, who can be cross-examined by the opposing side.
Once both sides have presented their cases, they make closing arguments. Then, the judge or jury deliberates and decides whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty based on the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the defendant is found guilty, the court moves to sentencing. The judge decides the appropriate punishment, which can range from fines, community service, probation to imprisonment, depending on the crime’s severity.
After the trial, the defendant can appeal the decision if they believe there was a significant legal error during the trial. An appellate court then reviews the trial court’s proceedings but does not consider new evidence.
The Importance of Criminal Proceedings
Criminal proceedings are a vital part of the criminal justice system. They ensure that a person accused of a crime is afforded their constitutional rights, including the right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Criminal proceedings are designed to balance the need to protect society by punishing those who break the law while also ensuring that the defendant’s rights are not violated. They are a testament to the principles of justice, fairness, and due process that form the foundation of our legal system.