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A criminal case begins with the filing of a formal charging document, such as an arrest warrant and application for statement of charges, a Criminal Summons where no arrest is involved, an Information or an Indictment. Other than charges by Summons or Citation, most cases in the state systems begin with an arrest. An arrest is deemed to have occurred when the police  restrain you or actually physically place you in custody.

Following the charging process, you are entitled to appear before a Commissioner, Magistrate or Judge for the determination of the conditions of pre-trial release, which is frequently referred to as “setting bail.” The Bail (or Bond) Hearing can constitute your initial appearance in a misdemeanor or District Court case. Following a formal charge in the Circuit Court, an arraignment, in which the person is informed of the charges against him, is set before a judge of that court. This procedure ensures that the defendant understands the charges against him and his rights, including the right to an attorney and trial by jury.

In the District Court, where misdemeanors are tried, the next stage is typically the trial. The case is tried before a judge who decides, based on the evidence, whether the state has met its burden to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The formal rules of evidence apply to all such proceedings. Challenges to illegal searches or statements and motions raising objections to the use of certain evidence against the defendant are most often heard during the trial itself. This differs from felony proceedings in the Circuit or Federal Courts where pre-trial motions that may prevent or eliminate evidence from the government's case are heard in advance of the trial by a judge.

Trial on many misdemeanors and all felonies can be before a jury in the Circuit or Federal Courts. At trial, the jury will decide, unanimously, whether the evidence proves the defendant's guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

If a defendant is convicted, the next stage is sentencing where, in most jurisdictions, the judge decides the appropriate penalty to be imposed after affording the defendant and the government their opportunity to argue for the appropriate sentence.

Post-trial and post-sentencing motions are often used to either correct an error that occurred in the trial or to modify the sentence that was imposed.

The final stage is an appeal which gives the defendant the right to ask a higher court to review what occurred and correct any errors by the lower trial court.