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The procedure for criminal prosecutions is complex. Procedures will vary from state to state. A criminal case begins with an arrest if the defendant is caught in the act or fleeing from the scene; if the defendant is not caught, a warrant for the defendant’s arrest will issue. The warrant is issued by a judge or a magistrate upon receiving a complaint detailing the charge of a specific crime against the accused. It is not enough for a police officer to go before a judge and say, “I’d like you to arrest Bonnie because I think she’s just murdered Clyde.” She must supply enough information to satisfy the magistrate that there is probable cause (reasonable grounds) to believe that the accused committed the crime. The warrant will be issued to any officer or agency that has power to arrest the accused with warrant in hand.
The accused will be brought before the magistrate for a preliminary hearing. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether there is sufficient reason to hold the accused for trial. If so, the accused can be sent to jail or be permitted to make bail. Bail is a sum of money paid to the court to secure the defendant’s attendance at trial. If he fails to appear, he forfeits the money. Constitutionally, bail can be withheld only if there is reason to believe that the accused will flee the jurisdiction.
Once the arrest is made, the case is in the hands of the prosecutor. In the fifty states, prosecution is a function of the district attorney’s office. These offices are usually organized on a county-by-county basis. In the federal system, criminal prosecution is handled by the office of the US attorney, one of whom is appointed for every federal district.
Following the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must either file an informationA formal charge that a less serious crime has been committed. (a document stating the crime of which the person being held is accused) or ask the grand juryA group of citizens that hear the state’s evidence and determine whether a reasonable basis (probable cause) exists for believing that a crime has been committed and thus that a criminal proceeding should be brought against a defendant. for an indictmentA formal charge that a serious crime has been committed; where a grand jury is convened, an indictment may issue if probable cause is found.. The grand jury consists of twenty-three people who sit to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution. It does not sit to determine guilt or innocence. The indictment is the grand jury’s formal declaration of charges on which the accused will be tried. If indicted, the accused formally becomes a defendant.
The defendant will then be arraigned, that is, brought before a judge to answer the accusation in the indictment. The defendant may plead guilty or not guilty. If he pleads not guilty, the case will be tried before a jury (sometimes referred to as a petit jury). The jury cannot convict unless it finds the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubtThe prosecutor must prove how each element of the offense charged is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”.
The defendant might have pleaded guilty to the offense or to a lesser charge (often referred to as a “lesser included offense”—simple larceny, for example, is a lesser included offense of robbery because the defendant may not have used violence but nevertheless stole from the victim). Such a plea is usually arranged through plea bargainingA defendant’s plea of guilty, given in exchange for a recommendation from the prosecutor to the judge for a limited or lesser sentence for the defendant. with the prosecution. In return for the plea, the prosecutor promises to recommend to the judge that the sentence be limited. The judge most often, but not always, goes along with the prosecutor’s recommendation.
The defendant is also permitted to file a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) in prosecutions for certain crimes. In so doing, he neither affirms nor denies his guilt. He may be sentenced as though he had pleaded guilty, although usually a nolo plea is the result of a plea bargain. Why plead nolo? In some offenses, such as violations of the antitrust laws, the statutes provide that private plaintiffs may use a conviction or a guilty plea as proof that the defendant violated the law. This enables a plaintiff to prove liability without putting on witnesses or evidence and reduces the civil trial to a hearing about the damages to plaintiff. The nolo plea permits the defendant to avoid this, so that any plaintiff will have to not only prove damages but also establish civil liability.
Following a guilty plea or a verdict of guilt, the judge will impose a sentence after presentencing reports are written by various court officials (often, probation officers). Permissible sentences are spelled out in statutes, though these frequently give the judge a range within which to work (e.g., twenty years to life). The judge may sentence the defendant to imprisonment, a fine, or both, or may decide to suspend sentence (i.e., the defendant will not have to serve the sentence as long as he stays out of trouble).
Sentencing usually comes before appeal. As in civil cases, the defendant, now convicted, has the right to take at least one appeal to higher courts, where issues of procedure and constitutional rights may be argued.
Criminal procedure in US courts is designed to provide a fair process to both criminal defendants and to society. The grand jury system, prosecutorial discretion, plea bargains, and appeals for lack of a fair trial are all part of US criminal procedure.