Whenever there is suspicion of criminal activity, law enforcement officers can begin an investigation. Sometimes suspects and witnesses are interviewed during the course of such an investigation. If a suspect is interviewed by law enforcement, he or she has a right to an attorney before and during that interview. People under suspicion of a criminal offence should always exercise their constitutional right to speak with an attorney before and during any police interview.
In a relatively small number of cases, the criminal case begins with an investigation held by a Grand Jury. A Grand Jury investigation usually commences when a prosecutor presents a case to the Grand Jury. A Grand Jury can also begin its own investigation.
A state level criminal case most often begins when a police officer makes an arrest, with or without an arrest warrant. A police officer may arrest on the spot and without a warrant when either a misdemeanor or a felony is committed in the police officer’s presence, or when the police officer has probable cause to believe that the person committed a felony. Probable cause exists when the officer knows facts that would lead a person of ordinary care and prudence to entertain an honest and strong suspicion that the arrestee is guilty of a crime.
A private person may also arrest another person when in his presence another person commits or attempts to commit a public offense, when the private person has probable cause to believe a felony was committed by the arrestee, even if not in the private person’s presence.
Arrests by either police or private persons are highly regulated and restricted activities.
An arrest warrant is a written order issued by a magistrate that directs any peace officer to arrest a particular person charged with a crime, and bring that person before that magistrate for misdemeanors, or any magistrate if the crime is a felony. Judges are magistrates. Police officers can an arrest warrant by filing a complaint, submitting a written declaration of probable cause or by making an oral statement of probable cause under oath.
After an arrest warrant is issued, the police officer is under a duty to arrest the designated person, unless the person is already in custody.
A person arrested without an arrest warrant must be brought before a magistrate within 48 hours of arrest for a probable cause hearing.
The next step is arraignment. At arraignment, the suspect appears in Court and is advised of the charges contained in the Criminal Complaint filed by the prosecutor, and his or her constitutional rights. Conditions of release or bail are also considered at this time. An arraignment is seen by the law as a “critical phase” of his or her criminal case, consequently a defendant has a right to counsel at arraignment. From this point forward, all further pre-trial procedures are determined by whether the suspect is charged with a misdemeanor or with a felony.
If the defendant is charged with a misdemeanor at arraignment, he or she will have the opportunity to plead guilty, to plead not guilty, or to remain silent to the charges on the Criminal Complaint. If the suspect pleads guilty, the judge may sentence the suspect at that time. Or, the Judge may reschedule the case to allow the probation department to prepare a sentencing recommendation. If the suspect pleads not guilty or remains silent, the judge will schedule the case for a pretrial conference.
If the defendant is charged with a felony at arraignment, he or she has the same opportunity to plead guilty, to plead not guilty, or to remain silent as in a misdemeanor arraignment.
Within 10 court days, or 60 calendar days of an arraignment on a felony, the prosecution must prove to a judge that there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the charge. This is done at a Preliminary Hearing. If the court finds sufficient evidence to hold the defendant to answer charges, the prosecutor will file an Information against the defendant.
If the case began as a Grand Jury investigation, and the Grand Jury finds probable cause to believe a person committed a public offense, it will issue an Indictment. An Indictment is similar to an Information that is filed by a prosecutor after a Preliminary Hearing.
After an Indictment or an Information is filed, the defendant will be arraigned on the charges. This arraignment is similar to the earlier arraignment on the Criminal Complaint.
Following arraignment on an Information or Indictment, the defendant has a right to a jury trial within 60 days. During that time, discovery occurs, motions are made and argued, investigation is conducted and the trial is prepared. In many cases, the 60 days is lengthened by agreements between the prosecution and defense, or in limited circumstances by motion of either party.
At trial, the prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt using competent evidence. Trials are very complicated events.
This article contains only the most basic information about the path of an adult criminal matter.
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