Criminal Cases

A criminal case begins when the prosecutor files criminal charges against a person, a person is arrested, or the grand jury returns an indictment against a person. Criminal offenses are either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor is a crime that is punishable by jail time of up to one year. A felony is a more serious crime that is punishable by prison time of more than one year.

Bail and Arraignment

If a defendant (the person accused of a crime) is in custody, bail (cash or property given to guarantee the defendant will appear in court at the scheduled time) can be posted. Bail is refunded after the defendant appears in court. A person who is charged with a crime must appear in court for an arraignment. During the arraignment, the court informs the defendant of the charges, and the defendant enters a plea to the charges. The defendant can plead not guilty, guilty, or no contest.

Entering a Plea

A defendant who pleads guilty to a misdemeanor can be sentenced during the arraignment. Sentencing will be postponed if the judge wants to review the probation report. A defendant who pleads guilty to a felony must be represented by an attorney unless the right to an attorney is waived. A sentencing hearing will follow.

If the defendant pleads not guilty to a misdemeanor, the judge sets a trial date. If the defendant pleads not guilty to a felony, a preliminary hearing is held. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor must show sufficient evidence that the defendant committed the felony. Charges against the defendant will be dropped if the judge decides there is not enough evidence against the defendant. If the judge decides there is sufficient evidence, the defendant will be formally charged.

Defendant’s Rights in Criminal Cases

Every defendant in a criminal case has the following rights:

  • Right to a copy of the written charge
  • Right to know the penalty for the offense
  • Right to an attorney
  • Right to a jury trial
  • Right to confront witnesses against the defendant
  • Right to remain silent
  • Right to an appeal

Trial and Verdict

If the defendant requests a jury trial, members of the jury are selected, and the jury is impaneled. Both sides present evidence such as documents, pictures, and testimony. After both sides give closing arguments, the judge gives the jury instructions about the law to be applied to the facts of the case. The jury deliberates in secret and returns a verdict of guilty or not guilty.


If the defendant pleads guilty or is convicted of the charges, the judge imposes a sentence. Punishments for crimes are set by law and range from a fine to imprisonment.


A defendant who is convicted of the charges can ask a higher court (an appellate court) to review the conviction. Grounds for appeal include the arguments that there was not enough evidence to convict or that there were mistakes of law during the trial that were unfair to the defendant.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.