What Is The Criminal Process?

The criminal justice process typically begins with a police stop, this could be a traffic stop, a stop-and-frisk, or a home visit. From the stop, the process can progress to an interrogation, arrest, bail/bond hearing, pleading, trial, sentencing, and appeal. Some of these words should be familiar to anyone who watches crime dramas on TV like Law and Order. What most people aren’t familiar with is that the defendant is actually in control of the process. Indeed, the Constitution guarantees the criminal defendant numerous rights in each step of the criminal justice process. In the following article, we shall explore each step of the criminal justice system.

The Legal Process

The Legal Process

How It Starts

A police officer may stop you for questioning if he/she has reasonable belief that a crime is being committed. This the not the same an arrest. During a stop, the police officer may ask you questions but may not move you to another location, like the back of a squad car. You have the right to not answer any questions at this point. The police may want to search your persons or your vehicle. In most jurisdictions, the police may not do either without a probable cause. However, in some jurisdictions, New York for example, the police may frisk you without probable cause. Probable cause is a legal term which means the officer believes that he/she is likely to find evidence of a crime on your person or in your vehicle. You could always deny the police’s request to search you but the officer may search you anyway. If the police searched your person or your vehicle without your consent, you can always challenge the officer’s probable cause in court at a later date.

At this point, the officer can let you go if he/she believes that no law has been broken. On the other hand, the stop can either result in a ticket if the crime carries civil penalty (like speeding), or result in a arrest if the crime is more serious in nature. Each jurisdictions has their own rules governing when an officer can arrest you. However, generally speaking, an officer can arrest you if he has probable cause to believe that you have committed a felony, witnesses you commit a misdemeanor, or if you have an outstanding warrant for your arrest.

The Arrest

If the officer places you under arrest, you will be taken into custody. At this point, the arresting officer must read you your Miranda rights. Anyone who watches police dramas on TV can recite the Miranda rights: “you have the right to remain silent, anything you say could and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you. Do you understand?” Under the current federal law, you must affirmatively acknowledge that you understand your rights before remaining silent in order for you to be protected under the Miranda rights. As mentioned before, the defendants is the one who controls the criminal process, and this is the first point at which a defendants could change his fate. The defendant could either choose to remain silent and ask for a lawyer or waive his rights and talk to the police, knowing that anything said could be used against him in court.


After the arrest is made, you will be booked into jail. At his point, you will be finger-printed, photographed, and your personal items taken from you and inventoried. After you are booked, you will either be held until your first court hearing, or you will be released awaiting a trial date. If you are held in custody, your first hearing will be within 24 to 48 hours of your arrest, depending on the jurisdiction. At your first court hearing, you will be informed of the official charges against you by a court official. The court official, usually a judge, will ask you how do want to plea. At this point, if you wish to end the process, you could either plead guilty or no contest, which means you admit to the charges against you or you do not wish to fight against the charges. If you plead guilty or no contest, the judge will sentence you whatever punishment he/she believes is proper on the law. In most jurisdictions, you may not appeal a plea. Of course, you could plead no guilty, at which point, the court will set for a bail/bond hearing to determine whether you are to be released under bail/bond until your trial date.

During the bail/bond hearing, you or your lawyer will argue for your release to your own devices for bail or bond. The judge could either accept the request or deny it. Under the usual circumstances, the judge will agree to bail or bond request unless the crime you’ve committed is too heinous or if you are a flight risk. If you are bailed or bonded, you will be released awaiting your trial. If your request is denied, you will be held in custody until your court date.

The Trial

The next step is the trial itself. Under the speedy trial rights guaranteed to you under the Constitution, your trial must begin within 30 days of your arrest. If you win the trial and found not guilty, you will be released. If you are found guilty, you will be sentenced during a sentencing hearing. If the latter happens, you have the right to appeal to a higher court which may affirm or repeal your judgment.

If the above process sounds complex and time consuming, it is. In the US, most trial, including the appeal process, can run any where from 6 month to 3 years. Because of the complexity of the process, it is in your best interest to speak to a criminal defense attorney. A trained and licensed attorney can guide you through each step of the process and make sure that your constitutional rights are protected. Nothing can replace a trained attorney who will fight for you to the utmost extent of the law.